On July 23, 2013, Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil, Permanent Representative of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the UN, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)
On July 23, 2013, Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil, Permanent Representative of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the UN, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

Egypt’s military leadership is playing with fire. During a televised cadet graduation ceremony on Wednesday, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for Egyptians to return to the streets to show that they back the military and its mandate to confront “violence and potential terrorism.”

Implicit in Sisi’s call is the military’s hope that such a show of public support will effectively counter continued protests by pro-Morsi supporters and strengthen the secular opposition. He also chose to explicitly encourage the idea of “national resistance” against terrorism. The military has been pushing this idea with increasing fervor since the coup, and it’s clear which “terrorists” they have in mind: the members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood that are refusing to accept Morsi’s removal from power. The military is leading the charge to vilify and de facto criminalize the Brotherhood, ensuring that all Muslim Brotherhood media outlets have been banned and filling the airwaves with patriotic calls to stamp out “terrorist elements.”
How successful this campaign has been will be more apparent on Friday, but the past few weeks have made clear that many Egyptians are relieved to see the marginalization of the Brotherhood, even if the price was the marginalization of the democratic process. But Brotherhood supporters, having won several general elections and a constitutional referendum, will not surrender their stance easily. Sisi evidently recognizes this. Brotherhood supporters feel like their rightful chance to rule has been denied, and that they were sacrificed to facilitate the return to power of the corrupt elites of the Mubarak-era. Real or not, this sense of betrayal is fueling a defiant mix of protests and rioting, and more violence seems inevitable.
The military coup has left 100 dead already. Many of those deaths are the work of illusive thugs in plain clothes, including a 17 year-old girl and Morsi supporter who died recently at the hands of a gang in the town of Mansourra. A security building was bombed in Mansourra a few days later in what’s believed to be a retaliatory attack. Protests and clashes typically happen at night when its cooler and protestors and thugs can break their fasts. Doing their utmost to keep their hands clean, both the military and police are often nowhere to be found when the violence breaks out in dark streets.
In the eyes of Brotherhood supporters, the military and police are complicit in the death of their supporters; their calculated absence has done little to conceal their position on the political standoff. General Sisi too has tried to stay out of the media limelight since the coup in an attempt to convince the world that the transition to civilian rule is underway. But now, the jig is up. Sisi made his commitment to keeping a tight grip on the political process plain when he asked Egyptians to ‘”show the world” that he and the military have the mandate to govern.
Sisi is clearly feeling the heat of the international community for overthrowing a democratically elected government. But to respond with a call for protests to be matched by more protests is hardly the strategy of a man who truly wants “national reconciliation” unless it is on his terms, and it could put the lives of thousands of Egyptians at risk. Whatever Egyptians want politically, they don’t want the current violence and chaos to continue or worsen, which is exactly what Sisi invited with his Wednesday speech. The coming days in Egypt will be violent and unsettling to watch.

This article first appeared on OpenCanada.org.

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  • CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani has a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on international political economy and is full professor and interim assistant vice‑president of international relations at the University of Waterloo.