Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

What lies beneath

As the political crisis grows more convoluted, the Armed Forces emerge as a key player, Amirah Ibrahim reports

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On 8 December the Armed Forces issued a statement clarifying their stand towards the ongoing conflict between Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and civil forces.

“The Armed Forces have been monitoring developments with growing concern,” said the statement. “[The situation] threatens to engulf the foundations of the Egyptian state and national security.”

“The Armed Forces... realise their responsibility to preserve the higher interests of the country and to secure and protect vital installations, public institutions and the interests of innocent citizens.”

“The Armed Forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus... The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe which is something that we won’t allow. Failing to reach a consensus is in the interest of no one. The nation as a whole will pay the price.”

“The statement,” says retired General Mahmoud Khalaf, “contained a message for all political players. It is a call for all forces, parties and powers to compromise and contribute to national dialogue. It appeals to opposition forces not to boycott, and implies the military will intervene if the crisis gets out of hand. The army clearly wants to stay out of politics but it will have no choice but to act should national security be threatened.”

On Tuesday, Armed Forces Chief and Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi out of the blue called for a meeting of “national unity for the love of Egypt to bring together partners of the country in the presence of the president of the republic”, the army spokesman said.

Al-Sisi made the appeal “for the sake of Egypt” for all political groups and movements to meet on Wednesday at a Cairo military sports complex.

The meeting was called in response to an increasingly destabilising series of protests that have unfolded since President Morsi passed the 22 November controversial constitutional declaration.

The call for the meeting was announced on the state-owned television saying that the president will also attend. It was denied shortly after, only to be confirmed again by a top military official. The contradictory statements were seen by observers as the beginning of a power struggle between the presidency and the army.

Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said that Morsi was already holding a dialogue with representatives of different political powers. He stated that President Morsi will not attend. “The national dialogue initiative is only one which has already been called by the presidency,” said Ali.

Retired General Talaat Musallam agreed that the statement appeared to target the opposition by denouncing boycott calls.

“The Armed Forces will not impose a political solution but the statement was clear: the situation cannot deteriorate further.” 

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan attempted a difficult juggling act, welcoming the statement as a show of support for Morsi while simultaneously objecting to any military return to the political scene. 

Journalist and activist Abdallah Al-Senawi took the opposite view, arguing that the statement was a warning to Morsi and his Islamist supporters.

“The army will do everything necessary to restore security,” he says.

Some commentators believe limited military intervention is increasingly likely given “friendly signals” exchanged by the army and the protesters.

Last Thursday Republican Guards secured the presidential palace with tanks, armoured vehicles and barbed wire barricades. Yet opposition protesters were permitted to paint anti-Morsi graffiti on the tanks and by mid-Friday were again allowed up to the perimeter of the presidential palace where they repainted anti-Morsi graffiti which had been covered by Morsi’s Islamist supporters.

During an address to junior officers on Monday Defence Minister Lieutenant General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said: “The army will never give up its national responsibility to maintain the country’s stability. The people of Egypt appreciate your sacrifices. You must maintain your unique combat capabilities to stand against all challenges and carry out any mission to defend the country and protect its sacred values.”

Al-Sisi’s aim was to boost the morale of officers charged with securing the 15 December referendum on the draft constitution.

On Sunday President Morsi issued a four-article decree, with immediate effect, allowing soldiers of all ranks to arrest civilians. The decree — said the president’s office — will apply until a new constitution is adopted, and allows army personnel to use what force is deemed necessary to maintain order.

The imposition of virtual martial law at such a critical juncture has led to speculation that Morsi’s aim is to co-opt the army to fight his corner — ie force through the referendum. 

Military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali told Al-Ahram Weekly that such an interpretation was wide of the mark.

“The decree applies only to troops assigned to help the police secure poll stations. It is a temporary power that ends as soon as the poll is completed.”

“Allowing soldiers to impose judicial custody does not mean troops can stop people, violate privacy and inspect property. This is a serious misunderstanding which caused opposition and activists to oppose the move when the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces introduced it six months ago. It aims to regulate the measures used by military units assigned to control and fight crime.”

Ali also stressed that only people who attacked troops would face military courts. Other criminal activity would continue to be dealt with by civil courts. 

“Bringing the army into an equation already boiling over with tensions between secular forces and the regime shows just how determined Morsi is to promote a constitution enshrining a central role for religion,” said one judicial source who requested anonymity.

The military was sidelined in August when Morsi ordered the retirement of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his deputy Sami Anan.

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