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Egypt Seesawing Between Civil Disobedience and Coup | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Egyptian protester waves his national flag as he is surrounded by tear gas fired by riot police in Cairo’s Tahrir square on January 25, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/MAHMOUD KHALED)

The growing atmosphere of congestion in Egypt portends greater dangers. There is increasing concern about what the coming days and weeks will bring to a country that seems to have lost the romance of its revolution days, and is now drowning in sheer frustration and depression. As a result, there has been much talk about the army and its role in a country that grew accustomed to living under military rule for over 60 years. It is interesting that this talk is no longer being conveyed in whispers, and is no longer confined to cyberspace. Rather, this issue is being discussed overtly by politicians and analysts in public platforms, as well as by numerous Egyptians who are despairing at the current state of affairs following on from the revolution’s second anniversary. All accompanying hopes and dreams have been dashed and replaced by political maneuvering, especially after the Muslim Brotherhood began to dominate the scene, revealing their determination to unilaterally rule the country.

The debate surrounding the army has further intensified following statements issued by General Abdul Fattah El-Sissi, general commander of Egypt’s armed forces and the country’s defense minister. He warned that the state could collapse should the situation deteriorate further. These remarks were followed by successive statements from other military commanders, claiming that the Egyptian army stands at the same distance from all political powers and that its role is to protect both the country and the people. The army’s leadership also had to refute the rumors that were spread widely on the internet, and which were circulated by some media outlets, claiming that President Mohamed Mursi had issued a provisional decree to dismiss General Sissi.

Yet this refutation alone was insufficient to appease the situation and end the speculation and rumors. Social networking websites, which are practically the main engine of news and events in Egypt, became embroiled in the controversy surrounding a statement attributed to Essam Sultan, deputy chairman of the Islamist Wasat party. Sultan allegedly issued a serious warning that if the army were to stage a military coup against the regime, the Islamists would seek the military assistance of friendly nations to return to power. After the statement spread across the internet like wildfire, Sultan dismissed the news on his Facebook page, describing such talk as absurd and backward.

The problem is that in cyberspace it is difficult to control rumors once they have been launched and circulated. People also began to discuss another statement, this time attributed to Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail—although he is yet to confirm it—warning that in the event of a military coup, the Egyptian army would face the same fate as the Syrian regime’s forces. Although Sheikh Abu Ismail is known for his controversial stances and escalatory statements—such as his previous warnings of a coup and his calls for President Mursi to be more resolute—these latest comments remain mere rumors.

Nevertheless, this atmosphere reflects the state of chaos and concern prevailing in Egypt. It also reflects the fears of some, and the hopes of others, with regards to the army’s possible intervention if the security situation, the economy, and political tensions continue to deteriorate. As a result of their recent actions and maneuvers, the Muslim Brotherhood have successfully achieved something that they will be the first to pay the price for: They have paved the way for the people on the street to accept the idea of military intervention as a way out of the crisis.

The parliamentary elections that Mursi recently announced—scheduled for 22 April and across four stages ending in June—will only add more fuel to the blazing fire. Major opposition forces have already declared their intention to boycott these elections, thus confining the contest to the political Islam parties, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. In the eyes of many, this scenario will only lead to further demonstrations, protests, congestion, and tension, all with a subsequent impact upon the economic and political situation. Now Egypt is on the verge of an economic collapse—and even a possible ‘revolution of the hungry’—in view of the continual budget deficits, deplorable tourist revenues, the fall of the Egyptian pound, and the decline in foreign exchange reserves to under USD 15 billion, a sum barely sufficient to pay for the country’s imports over the coming three months.

Parliamentary elections could have been an opportunity to alleviate the tension and clear up the doubts between the Brotherhood and other political powers. This could have been possible if the president had not addressed the elections issue in the same manner that he dealt with the constitution; by ignoring the opposition and rapidly passing an election law through the Shura Council, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and their allies. He also announced an election date without consulting others. Indeed the Brotherhood, when hastily trying to schedule elections, initially announced that the first electoral stage would begin on a date conflicting with an Egyptian Coptic feast. This obviously sparked another wave of protests and President Mursi was forced to retract the decision and announce a revised voting timetable. The whole process reflects the state of confusion that currently blights Egyptian decision-making, which will have major consequences for the political future.

Trying to hold elections amid such a tense climate is like speeding up a train as it heads towards the edge of a cliff, instead of applying the brakes. The Brotherhood, being lured by power, do not want to deliberate or pause for thought in order to reach acceptable, pacifying solutions with other forces. They do not seem to be convinced that the current crisis requires collective efforts and the galvanization of all energies into one national unity government, which can steer the country through an extremely complex period. This was further confirmed when President Mursi appeared on a televised interview three days ago, which people thought was an effort to alleviate the tension. However, the interview only created more criticism and congestion, as well as more ridicule and disbelief among the Egyptians, after it was screened five hours later than the original schedule of 8:00 p.m. In the interview, the president offered no concessions with regards to opposition demands, but instead said that no one could stop the Brotherhood. He did not use conciliatory language, but instead threatened that he would not be lenient with those he described as “thugs” calling for “civil disobedience”.

This severe congestion could either lead to serious confrontations, which we have already seen in Port Said and other cities, or a slide towards further chaos and a ‘revolution of the hungry’, which would pave the way for a coup.