With 30 June rallies around corner, all eyes turn to Egypt armed forces

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 27 Jun 2013

On the eve of next week's mass protests against President Morsi, along with planned counter-rallies by Morsi's Islamist supporters, all eyes turn to Egypt's armed forces and the role they will play in the looming showdown

File photo: An Egyptian army tank is seen behind barbed wire securing the perimeter of the presidential palace while protesters on the other side chant anti President Mohammed Morsi slogans, in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 (Photo: AP)

As 30 June looms closer, it looks like nothing will alter the inevitable that lies in wait for this country one year after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) handed power to a civilian president.

It was a year filled with dire assessments regarding most political, economic, social and security concerns. Perhaps the only positive development was that achieved by the military establishment, which, over the course of the past year, has succeeded in turning around its public image from that encapsulated in the slogan 'Down with military rule' to almost the very antithesis.

This has been expressed in calls for the army to assume control again in order to stabilise the situation, so that the post-revolutionary clock might be turned back to zero and the interim phase can begin afresh with the army acting as the trustworthy temporary administrator of the nation.

Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has advanced the army as a political player again. His charismatic speech at an awareness-raising seminar in Cairo's Galaa Theatre on Sunday signalled that the army could step forward again to play a role in the political process at this critical juncture.

Former deputy chief of Egypt's General Intelligence Service (GIS) General Hossam Kheirallah told Ahram Online: "With this speech, General El-Sisi has presented himself as an alternative for the near future. Without going overboard in praise, his speech reflects many virtues in his character. He is the only person who succeeded in bringing his institution [the army] back from the brink of disaster in a state in which virtually everything else had collapsed within the space of a year."

He added that the defence minister "is the only one who could speak to the street, bolstered by his success in this institution. We believe that 30 June will usher in the beginning of a new phase, which will begin with negotiations over arrangements for when the president will step down. The fear that chaos and civil strife is inevitable has been dispelled, although perhaps it was natural to expect that this would be louder than the voice of politics."

Armed Forces spokesman Colonel Mohamed Ahmed Ali summarised El-Sisi's speech in 11 points, "each of which builds on the previous points logically and cohesively." Indeed, all the sources that Ahram Online spoke to agreed with Ali that "the speech was formulated with consummate care and precision at a time when the country needs consummate care and precision."

Ali added: "It was also shaped by astute military expertise and with the unanimous approval of all the [military] leaders with whom General El-Sisi began to consult at least two days beforehand, since the [Islamists'] No to violence' rally on Friday in front of Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque. What Al-Sisi said in his speech reflected the current sense of the situation and a unanimity of opinion among all quarters of the armed forces."

Perhaps some of the political forces misinterpreted the points in the speech. The Muslim Brotherhood reacted with alarm, as though it feared that El-Sisi was signalling an imminent "soft coup" against the president. For at least eight hours, they held their breath as they attempted to assess the situation.

During this period, Muslim Brotherhood members were instructed not to appear in the media. According to sources in the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the party put everything on hold as they awaited word from the office of the group's supreme guide. As one FJP source described the mood among the party leadership at the time, "it was like awaiting a sentencing."

Finally, they received a message from the office of the group's supreme guide, delivered by Muslim Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein, who was in contact with Deputy Supreme Guide Kheirat Al-Shater and the president. The message said: "Relax. No need to worry." No further details were offered.

However, Hussein said he had spoken with other leaders, and the conclusion had been that the Muslim Brotherhood could deal with the situation more flexibly by calling for an unconditional dialogue in which everything would be negotiable except for the need for the president to remain in office until the completion of his term.

El-Sisi's speech, published on the military spokesman's webpage on Sunday, was also, for the first time, rebroadcast via the Internet so as to give viewers the opportunity to catch the details of the speech and to sense the atmosphere in the hall as El-Sisi delivered it live. For example, the room was filled with seven-minute applause after he said, "Death is preferable to those who threaten the Egyptian people or spill their blood."

Later that day, El-Sisi arrived at the presidential palace for a meeting with the president. A source at the palace revealed that Morsi had been unaware of El-Sisi's speech and that the meeting had been prearranged. According to an informed source, Morsi had assured El-Sisi during that meeting that he and the Muslim Brotherhood guaranteed that its members would remain peaceful on 30 June and that they would not carry arms or incite violence.

The president was then said to have cautioned that the army should keep its eyes on the "other side." The two agreed that there had to be a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC).

In the interval between the meeting between Morsi and El-Sisi and the NSC meeting, there was a flurry of contacts between various parties.

However, the most important and most frequent were those conducted with or via the US embassy in Cairo, which has sought to sustain good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in spite of the reservations embassy officials have voiced over its performance and in spite of the refusal to heed much of the advice coming out of Washington.

Although few details have been revealed about these communications, the embassy reproached the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau for revealing details about the relationship between them. It also came to light recently that there had been a meeting between El-Shater and US Ambassador to EgyptAnne Patterson.

General Hamdi Bakhit, a military expert, maintains that there are a couple of points with regard to El-Sisi's speech that should be borne in mind before considering what took place in the NSC meeting.

Firstly, it was the second time the army called upon Egyptian political forces to engage in dialogue. If the first dialogue, which the president had prevented, had succeeded, Egypt would have avoided many risks and dangers. In Bakhit's opinion, the second call for a dialogue is unlikely to succeed because "now the parties are so far apart that it has become impossible to find common ground between them."

The second point is that the army feels that the president has failed in the military establishment as commander-in-chief. A strong indication of this is his failure to stem the indignities inflicted against the military establishment by "spiteful members of his 'family and tribe'," as Bakhit put it, quoting the terms with which Morsi addressed his Muslim Brotherhood supporters in a speech at the presidential palace last year.

Therefore, he said, El-Sisi had a strong sense of the pulse in the military establishment, which is united in its confidence in General El-Sisi and the SCAF, while it feels that the president's affiliation with the army is simply in name only. Bakhit stressed that this general feeling has been confirmed by precise and reliable opinion polls conducted in the military establishment.

"The army, at present, no longer feels confident that the current political entities are capable of realising the ambitions of the people and that the army will have to step in sooner or later," he said.

Surprisingly, the NSC meeting failed to produce a spark of hope in the possibility that the opposition could be persuaded to engage in dialogue. However, military expert General Talaat Muslim understands this.

"The repeated calls to dialogue have lost their glimmer," he said. "Even such basic demands as the call for a new government, the dismissal of the current public prosecutor and the appointment of an alternative by the Supreme Judicial Council, and a general dialogue over amending the constitution have gone unheard."

He added: "Now I'm afraid that it might be too late to discuss even these measures. It is clear that the president and his group have shut their ears to all advice and persisted on their course, on their own. I do not believe they realise the consequences of that way of doing things."

A Muslim Brotherhood official told Ahram Online that his group would not initiate violence because it feared the wrath of the army. However, based on discussions with this official, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood is unaware of the state of apprehension within the armed forces.

At the same time, according to this source, "there are intentions that some Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya members are trying to export in political corridors."

This corroborates what a military source reported to Ahram Online: "Safwat Abdel-Ghani, a former leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and currently an official in the Construction and Development Party, accused the Muslim Brotherhood, at a meeting with El-Shater, of being too lenient with the liberals and leftists. He said that this language won't work with that trend – the 'liberals and leftists'."

A highly placed official told Ahram Online that the weapons reports that were submitted to the NSC were extremely worrying and fed the belief that certain parties were preparing for an armed engagement.

"It is essential that there is a party that can stop those forces if the demonstrations turn violent," he said. "I believe that the army has said what it has to say on this matter and that the message came across to those whom it may concern, that if the army is compelled to resort to force of arms, the losses will be great. But it has no desire to go this way."

Another source with knowledge of what transpired at the NSC meeting suggested that the meeting did not focus on what it should have. On the other hand, he pointed out that El-Sisi's attendance at that meeting did not indicate a change in position since his Sunday speech.

"On the contrary, he brought the president into the picture and effectively told him that he had to stop taking decisions on his own or through the Muslim Brotherhood," the source said. "In other words, from now on, every decision had to be taken in full view of the NSC."

The source continued: "According to my assessment of what transpired at the meeting, we are headed toward 30 June in a way that Egypt would not wish. The Islamists are playing with fire and it will burn them. Their decision to take to the field on Friday, two days in advance of the forthcoming Tamarod protest, is effectively a declaration of war against the other side and a sure sign that they will initiate violence as was confirmed in last Friday's 'Kandahar III' demonstration at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque."

He went on: "They lack all sense of responsibility, for which reason a clash is imminent. The army has lost all confidence in them because it realises that the promises that Morsi gave to El-Sisi were mere words, and that the call to dialogue is mere words. But the army is at the ready and it has detailed contingency plans."

The source said that the plans range from how to safeguard vital infrastructure and protect public services to how to respond to attempted infiltrations of army ranks, rioting and armed violence. The plans also cover possible side battles in the Sinai, for example, as well as possible attempts to ignite trouble beyond our borders.

Already, the army has stepped up border security and is coordinating with the presidency and the interior ministry on many other security-related tasks. A fully-equipped and comprehensive operations room is up and running for these purposes, as well as for handling political dimensions, such as the army's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood or a dialogue with the diverse secularist political forces.

For the moment, however, the army is on standby in anticipation of whatever happens on 30 June. Afterwards, it will assess the situation and determine the course it will follow in the future, including whether or not Morsi remains in power, in accordance with the principles that have been agreed upon by the commanders of the armed forces, the source concluded.

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