Egypt’s armed forces chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has called for pro-military demonstrations across Egypt on Friday, ostensibly to, in his words, “give me, the army, and police a mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism.” His demand for protests that explicitly support the military highlights the army’s anti-democratic track record, and threatens to co-opt the grassroots democratic movement that gave the military the pretext to expel Morsi from office. Al-Sisi is presenting Egyptians with a false, repellent choice between military control and Islamist authoritarianism.
The military’s call to protest, and its insistence that it can unilaterally intervene to stop whatever it deems a “security threat,” serves as further confirmation that it is truly the army, and not their appointed interim President Adly Mansour, that wields power in Egypt. As such, the military can wield disproportionate influence with regard to the drafting of a new constitution, overruling any aspects they don’t like on the grounds of “security.”
The last time the Egyptian military established an interim government, it behaved as despotically as either former President Hosni Mubarak or Morsi. When millions of Egyptians protested against military rule in November 2011, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, cracked down violently, wounding and killing hundreds of Egyptians.
There is little reason to believe that the current military regime will behave any differently than the SCAF once it consolidates its power. Despite Mansour’s calls for national reconciliation talks involving all parties, the Egyptian military has issued arrest warrants for Muslim Brotherhood leaders on the baseless charge of “incitement to violence.”
For the Islamists, this is a terrifying development that represents a return to the pre-Arab Spring era, when Mubarak’s military-backed regime actively repressed and persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that the military is still detaining Morsi at a secret location, and refusing to release him or even formally charge him with any crimes, is adding to the Islamists’ fears.
Much like Mubarak and Morsi, the military is aggressively targeting and censoring the press. Many Morsi opponents have criticized Al Jazeera for reflecting the Qatari government’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias, and the military has responded by hindering the news agency's operations in Egypt. They’ve raided the network’s Egyptian offices and issued an arrest warrant against its director on charges of “operating without a license,” which they claim wasn’t renewed after the SCAF shut down the network’s offices in 2011.
At first, the Tamarod movement, which began as a grassroots anti-Morsi effort, reacted with caution to the military’s rule. Shortly after Morsi’s ouster, both the Tamarod movement and the National Salvation Front, a coalition of liberal groups, opposed Al-Sisi’s constitutional declaration and his time frame for elections, stating their legitimate concern that his actions amount to the formation of a new dictatorship.
Unbeknownst to many of the Tamarod movement’s activists, members of Egypt’s old political elite, who have strong ties to the military and Mubarak's regime, helped bankroll and organize the anti-Morsi movement. They include Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire; Tahani Al-Gebali, an ex-judge of the Supreme Constitutional Court; and Shawki Al-Sayed, a legal adviser to Ahmed Shafik, who was prime minister under Mubarak and lost last year’s runoff elections to Morsi.
The only thing these men have in common with the Tamarod activists on the ground is that they don’t like Morsi. Even so, the Tamarod movement has departed from its initial stance against the military’s constitutional declaration, and become willing to publicly support Al-Sisi and the army, indicating that these funders and organizers have co-opted an otherwise grassroots people's movement. By playing up fears regarding Morsi's authoritarian presidency, the elites seem to have successfully duped the activists into supporting their authoritarian allies in the military.
It can also be argued that the military has co-opted the National Salvation Front, an anti-Islamist opposition organization composed of liberal and secularist groups. Like the Tamarod movement, the National Salvation Front initially disagreed with the military’s new constitutional decree, on the grounds that the army did not consult with them. However, the coalition’s most well-known leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, accepted a position as interim deputy president for foreign affairs.
The New York Times has suggested that the military potentially engineered some of the non-political problems that led to the popular unrest against Morsi. Shortly after the military removed Morsi from office, the power outages and energy shortages that plagued his reign came to a halt, and police returned to the streets in greater numbers. This implies that the military had been working behind the scenes to undermine Morsi’s presidency and turn the electorate against him.
Despite all this, the army has dubbed itself “the protector of the revolution,” using language that is, ironically, similar to that used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Egypt’s secularists and liberals must not fall for this. The military is fearmongering and capitalizing on the outrage over Morsi’s presidency, in order to produce the appearance of a mandate and popular support. If Egyptians truly want to restore democracy, they must actively oppose both military overreach and Morsi’s legacy, just as they did during the SCAF regime.