President Mohamed Morsi said that if he has to “impose exceptional measures to restore domestic order” he will do so, emphasising that he “is afraid” he might have to.
Morsi’s statement came on Sunday as he gave a speech in the opening session of a conference devoted to women's rights and freedoms at the presidential palace in Cairo, and was widely understood by the opposition as a direct threat that a crackdown on his opponents is on the way.
A few hours after the president’s speech, in which he also accused the media of inciting violence, Media Production City (MPC) in Sixth October City on Sunday was besieged by Islamist protesters who came to condemn what they perceived as anti-Islamist bias in the Egyptian private media.
A number of television stars and opposition figures were both verbally and physically attacked at the gates of the media complex.
The sit-in in Sixth October gave more reasons for Morsi’s opponents to believe that his speech was a green light to his supporters and that his words were not only threats but rather a sign that more “exceptional measures” are about to be imposed.
“What we are witnessing now reminds me of what happened in September 1981 under [former president] Sadat”, human rights activist Gamal Eid told Ahram Online, comparing Morsi’s possible crackdown to the massive police strike that Sadat ordered against the Egyptian opposition and in which more than 1,500 political figures from all parts of the political spectrum were put in prison.
“At that time too President Sadat said that he was doing this for the good of the nation but the result was his assassination, a lesson that Morsi does not seem to have learnt,” Eid added.
Morsi warned in his speech about those trying to “sabotage" the course of the January 25 revolution and Egypt's democratic transition and cause chaos. He also warned the political opposition against trying to give a political cover to violence.
The next day, the prosecutor-general summoned five well-known activists after Brotherhood lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud filed a complaint against 169 individuals – including party heads, politicians and "thugs" – whom he accused of inciting the violence that took place on Friday outside the Brotherhood headquarters. The clashes between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood on Friday left at least 200 people injured.
Under Mubarak, Egypt's emergency law was repeatedly extended every three years, throughout the course of his 30-year rule. Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces finally lifted the emergency law on 31 May 2012.
Under the state of emergency, police had the right to detain individuals without charge. An emergency law was often used against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists during the Mubarak era.
But will the president really impose a state of emergency of any kind in Egypt in the coming days or weeks? Morsi’s aides clearly stated more than once over the past few days that he will not.
Ayman Ali, the president’s advisor, said on Monday that Morsi’s speech was misinterpreted and did not include any exceptional measures. In a phone interview with CBC television channel, Ali said that he does not know nor has he heard of any decisions to arrest opposition figures or to shut down television stations.
“The president’s statements were understood by some as an announcement that the state is regaining its authority and will not allow any illegal actions, and by others as exceptional measures that would restrain freedoms.”
Ali emphasised that the president does not intend to restrict any freedoms or rights.
For many political analysts, however, there is a difference between the fact that Morsi will not impose a state of emergency and the fact that he couldn’t.
“We all can smell September 1981 in the air but the thing is: this is not 1981,” political analyst Hazem Monir told Ahram Online.
Monir expect Morsi’s administration to take a number of steps that it thinks would help to control the anger in the street and bring some stability to the country at least until the parliamentary elections are held.
“Morsi cannot afford to take sweeping measures through which he would be able to crack down on his opponents in one shot,” Monir said.
“Neither the state apparatus nor the international community nor the Egyptian street is as it was in 1981,” explains Monir, “and for an administration that is keeping an eye on the IMF loan, any attempt to impose an emergency law will stifle the flow of capital to Egypt and will discourage international donors from trying to bail Egypt out.”
Last February, in response to a recent wave of deadly clashes throughout the country, President Mohamed Morsi imposed a 30-day state of emergency – including daily curfews – in the canal cities of Suez, Ismailia and Port Said. Both the state of emergency and the curfews were intentionally broken as an act of protest by residents of the cities.
On Monday, Morsi and the Minister of Defence General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi had a closed meeting that lasted for about an hour. News reports later in the day stated that the president asked his minister of defence if he approved of imposing exceptional measures, an inquiry that was met with much reservation.
A few hours later El-Sisi, in a meeting with military leaders, said that the army stands at an equal distance from all political factions, stressing that “the economic, social and security challenges that Egypt faces require that all forces of society unite and work together to overcome the current crisis.”
“The army has learnt their lesson,” said Monir, commenting on the meeting and the news leaks that appeared thereafter.
“It will not put itself as a party in the current political tug of war and I really doubt that the president will ask the army to do so.”
Monir does not believe that the army is willing to play the role it played in Suez Canal cities in February on a wider national scale, even though they managed to defuse an escalating crisis.
General Mohamed Ali Bilal, however, thinks that the army should intervene to put an end to what he described as “the clear inefficiency of the current administration.” The strategic analyst went further to describe the methods used by the presidency towards its opponents as “methods similar to those that were adopted by the old regime.”
“Both the presidency and the political leaders do not care about the country and are serving very narrow political interests,” Bilal said.
“The army is too hesitant at a time when it should take the initiative and propose a way out to the presidency and advise it not to go further in its current policies.”
Bilal thinks that El-Sisi should call for a national dialogue and invite representatives of all colours of the political spectrum, including the presidency.
In December 2012 the army chief called for a dialogue meeting between different political groups and the presidency in an attempt to contain a crisis that erupted after a controversial constitutional declaration was issued by the president. The meeting was put on hold the next day as both the president and the Freedom and Justice Party from which he hails seemed to have reservations about the army’s call.
“We don’t have the luxury to wait for diplomatic approaches that keep everyone happy,” said Bilal.
“Any other attempt to control the current crisis will only make things worse.”
However, Monir does not think that President Morsi is willing to engage in a serious dialogue with the opposition that apparently has limited influence in the street.
“Some security measures would be taken in the coming days in an attempt to buy time into the elections, but all these pain killers will not work; even if they do now, the future will see more chronic pains that will need more than a blazing speech to fix.”