Islamist riposte

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy hold his posters at a protest on July 12 in a park near Cairo University. Photo: Amr Nabil/AP

People gather to break their fast on the third day of Ramzan in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focal point of protests against Morsy, on July 12. Photo: Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, Defence Minister, who is seen as the face of the military coup. Photo: REUTERS

Mohamed ElBaradei with interim President Adly Mansour after being sworn in as Vice-President, on July 14. Photo: AP

Ibrahim Munir, secretary-general of the International Organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP

Soldiers stand guard on armoured personnel carriers at Nasr City, Cairo, on July 12. Photo: Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

After the military coup, the Muslim Brotherhood goes on the offensive and the political divide in Egypt deepens further.

A MILITARY coup, backed by a wide cross section of people who had demonstrated in their millions to seek the removal of President Mohamed Morsy, has cemented Egypt’s broad secularist-Islamist divide.

After the initial euphoria among the supporters of the coup, the Islamists, led by the highly organised Muslim Brotherhood to which Morsy belongs, have mounted a fierce riposte. A week after the coup, the Islamists were threatening to seize the initiative in the battle for the streets, working with the clear intention of reinstating Morsy to the presidency.

A grim tragedy at daybreak on July 8, when the army and the police killed at least 51 Muslim Brother-hood supporters outside the elite Republican Guards headquarters, where the deposed President is being presumably held, has energised the pro-Morsy campaign. Occupying the moral high ground after the bloodbath, Morsy’s backers now appear ever more determined to achieve their maximalist goals, further hardening the country’s sharply defined social divide.

The turnaround in mood—when sorrow, resulting from the carnage outside the Republican Guards head-quarters, turned into escalatory defiance within hours of the tragedy—was palpable outside the nearby Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque, the focal point of the pro-Morsy campaign. At the square in Nasr City outside the mosque, the combative mood, imbued with a sense of religiosity on account of the approaching month of Ramzan, had become palpable. Brotherhood activists distributed leaflets—written in plain black ink, a symbol of mourning—with their version of the fateful morning’s events.

Announcements over the public address system were interrupted by the rendering of Quranic verses, as groups huddled in prayer in search of catharsis in the aftermath of the tragedy. An imam of a local mosque, who had survived the morning’s firing, hobbled into the square narrating details of his near fatal encounter. “I was getting up from prayer when firing from all directions started. It lasted for nearly four hours. I saw children die after inhaling tear gas,” he told onlookers.

Others handed over empty bullet casings that had the Egyptian Arab Army’s markings on it. “I think this incident is a real turning point for our campaign to reinstate our President. It can divide the army and change the mind of some young people in the anti-Morsy camp,” said Tamer Abdurrahman, a petroleum company engineer, when interviewed by this correspondent at the square. Abdurrahman acknowledged the dangers of a split military force, which might engender a civil war. Mosad El-Asmar, a businessman, was of the view that the incident could provoke a violent response in the Upper Egypt area, where Morsy and the Brotherhood enjoy strong support.

Lionised at Tahrir Square where anti-Morsy supporters have converged in droves, Egypt’s Defence Minister, General Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, the face of the coup, was a much reviled figure among the assemblage at Nasr City. Posters bearing the general’s picture crossed by an X-sign, calling him a “traitor”, were awash in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square.

The high-octane, emotive resonance of the Brother-hood’s narrative seemed to have drowned out the military’s version of the events. At a late evening press conference on July 8, army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali explained that the situation outside the Republican Guards headquarters was not peaceful, as stated by the pro-Morsy camp. Armed with supporting video footage, he asserted that gunmen tried to cut through the barbed wire surrounding the compound—the ingress coordinated by sniper fire from the rooftops. “The armed forces and the police did not respond to the protesters but remained to protect the public institutions. We dealt with the angry protesters with restraint,” said the colonel.

The Brotherhood leadership swiftly channelled the fury resulting from the morning’s events into a call for an “uprising” against the country’s new military rulers. The sharp escalation in the stand-off between the military and the Islamists was captured by a statement by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)—the Brotherhood’s political wing—which called for “an uprising by the great people of Egypt against those trying to steal their revolution with tanks”. The party warned that Egypt could descend into a Syria-like civil war, adding a scary regional dimension to the local events. The party urged “the international com-munity and international groups and all the free people of the world to intervene to stop further massacres ...and prevent a new Syria in the Arab world”.

Scene at Tahrir Square

A few kilometres away, at Tahrir Square, the symbol of the uprising that had brought down former President Hosni Mubarak, anti-Morsy campaigners were inking a counter-narrative, demonstrating that Egypt’s streets do not be-long to the Islamists alone. Hawkers did brisk business, selling pictures of all sizes of a youngish looking Gen. El-Sisi, who, his supporters say, has become the face of Egypt’s second revolution. A conscious attempt was being made to elevate the Egyptian military to iconic status, as an unimpeachable guardian of political stability, social justice and patriotism.

Posters were being distributed at the venue with Gen. El-Sisi’s pictures in full uniformed regalia, juxtaposed with images of former President Anwar Sadat and of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was a celebrated symbol of Arab nationalism half a century ago. It is apparent that Egypt’s new rulers have been mounting a Herculean effort to paint Gen. El-Sisi in the popular imagination as the legitimate successor of the finest and the most idealistic leader that the Egyptian military has so far produced. Gen. El-Sisi is also being projected as a social unifier. Pictures of him passed around at the square show him flanked by Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros IIand the Grand Mufti of the Al Azhar mosque.

A raised platform with black speaker towers has become the focal point of activity at the square, where, microphone in hand, young men wearing black T-shirts and cotton trousers hold forth. They are part of the Tama-rod (Rebel) campaign, which has transformed Egypt’s political landscape. Inspired by the message of Mahmoud Badr (27) and four others, its supporters had fanned out in the country to accumulate 22 million signatures calling for Morsy’s exit. Tamarod supporters say that their signature campaign provides legitimacy for the deposition of Morsy, who had mustered only 13 million votes in elections that made him President.

The Tamarod campaign has backed its claims with a show of strength by mustering millions in anti-Morsy rallies that culminated in the President’s exit. Unlike previous youth movements, such as the one that brought down Mubarak, the Tamarod has firmly allied itself with the military. Tamarod supporters defend the army by saying that the men in uniform do not intend to take over power and that they are committed to confine their involvement to the transition to democracy. “The generals will not take over. Their role is merely to ensure security during the transition. The army is standing by the side of the people. Our revolution continues,” said Tama-rod spokeswoman Riham al-Masriinan interview with the website ANSAmed.

From the podium at the square that is awash with Egyptian flags, and from where patriotic songs blare, the campaign’s members passionately seek to distinguish the mainstream military—led by Gen. El-Sisi—from the one with the likes of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which had steered Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition. Speakers condemn the Field Marshalas a vestige of the Mubarak era, pointing out that the worst of a bygone generation in the army has been purged.

In sharp contrast to the early phase of the anti-Mubarak uprising when “democratic West” was the flavour of the season, Tahrir Square after Morsy’s exit is splattered with posters and banners that are dismissive of the West, especially the United States, for its alleged support for Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood. Emblazoned on a banner bearing President Barack Obama’s picture at the square are the words: “Wake up America, Obama backs a Fascist regime in Egypt.”

Another banner that is stingingly critical of the Americans says, “Obama supports terror-ism”. Posters with pictures of President Obama and Anne Patterson, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, crossed with X-signs are everywhere at the square.

Reactions abroad

Yet the anti-American flavour and strong whiff of Nasserite revivalism that are evident at Tahrir Square may not reflect the perception of the military leadership. The American and the Egyptian militaries have drawn strong structural linkages since the Sadat presidency. The Americans provide a large part of the military equipment needed by the Egyptians, and the Egyptian military benefits from a handsome annual U.S. military aid, amounting to around $1.5 billion.

The Americans have also tacitly supported the coup. They have decided not to characterise the military take-over of the country as a coup, a designation that would have blocked U.S. aid to Egypt, for American domestic law bans aid to any country where an elected government is toppled by a military coup.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also supported the toppling of a presidency aligned with the Brotherhood, signalling a wider geopolitical shift in the region. Al-Arabiya, the Saudi-backed Arab satellite channel, is reporting that Saudi Arabia will deposit $2billion in Egypt’s central bank, transfer oil products worth the same amount, and deliver $1billion in cash.

Cash doles from the UAE will include a $1billion grant and an interest-free loan of $2billion. The decision was taken following an air dash to Abu Dhabi by Hisham Ramez, Egypt’s central bank governor. This set in motion a flurry of activity, highlighted by the visit to Cairo by a high-powered UAE delegation that included top ruling family members such as Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed al-Nahyan, National Security Adviser, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Foreign Minister.

The conspicuous assertion by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may mark the eclipse of the influence of Qatar, the top ally of the Morsy presidency, on the Egyptian leadership. Qatar had recently gone ahead with commercial acquisitions in Egypt, which included the purchase of Société Générale’s Egypt unit. It had also signed on a joint project to import liquefied natural gas with Egypt’s Citadel, Financial Times reported. The Qatari government responded to the coup with a bland statement that Doha would “continue to respect the will of Egypt and its people across the spectrum”.

In the fluid scenario, the Russians, who have already entrenched themselves in Syria by aligning with President Bashar al-Assad, also seemed ready to jump into the fray in Egypt. The Moscow Times reported that, if requested, Russia could provide financial support to Egypt. “I don't rule out that they might ask for some economic help, like they already did at some Gulf countries,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, as quoted by RIA Novosti. “[Egypt's] economy is in dire straits for sure,” observed Bogdanov, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to West Asia. He said that Russia could channel some funds from the federal budget to the struggling economy, and the private sector could also get involved. “Private companies are studying the conditions of providing such help so that it will be used effectively and be in the framework of developing our bilateral ties,” he added.

The Russian envoy added that Egypt’s interim administration under President Adly Mansour was keeping Moscow informed about the situation in the country, and Moscow “will consider” any requests from Cairo for help. Aware of the sensitivity of the domestic situation after the July 8 bloodbath, Mansour, the provisional President, has issued a roadmap for the post-Morsy transition. In a decree that was issued on the same evening, Mansour declared that changes would be made to the existing Constitution, which would then be put to a referendum, paving the way for parliamentary elections early next year.

The order of the interim President set specific timelines for completing the post-Morsy transition: a panel would be formed within a fortnight to amend the Constitution; and within four months a referendum would be held to approve the changes.

Parliamentary elections would take place in early2014, followed by the presidential election once the new parliament convened. But, with the well-organised Brotherhood in a combative mood, it is unlikely that the post-Morsy transition will be possible without serious compromises by either side of Egypt’s deeply entrenched political divide.