Yesterday, General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s Minister of Defense and head of the military, called for Egyptians to take to the streets in protest on Friday to “confront terrorism.” Such a call amounts to a public relations one-upmanship vis-à-vis continued Islamist protests since Morsi’s ouster.  Clearly, the Egyptian military is in no need of popular protests to confront credible national security threats or armed militias that threaten the security of citizens. The variable here is the extent to which exceptional circumstances grant the military unspecified special powers to carry out its duty as a state institution with the responsibility and capacity to protect citizens. More importantly, the extent and potential abuse of this popular mandate has the capacity and likelihood to stain the legitimate, popular uprising of June 30, which decried creeping authoritarianism under the banner of reclaiming the revolution.

The timing of el-Sisi’s call reflects the urgency of an increasingly untenable security situation, with Islamist forces continuing to rally against what they deem the “bloody military coup.” These protests have resulted in a nationwide cycle of violence that has claimed nearly 200 lives since Morsi’s ouster.[1]  The Sinai Peninsula has witnessed continued deterioration in the form of daily attacks on military installations and even civilians by armed assailants. Attempts at extending national reconciliation efforts have been firmly rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood, with the obvious non-starter being its consistent insistence on the reinstatement of Morsi. 

But while the military and security agencies have had clear threats and actions to confront, their performance in according security and due process to citizens in both pro and anti-Morsi camps—as well as those individuals who take neither side—has been lacking and often heavy-handed.  This was the case in the July 8 incident in front of the Cairo Republican Guard’s club, in which more than 50 Egyptians were killed in a likely disproportionate use of force against Islamist demonstrators, some of whom were armed.  The military and security agencies have likewise proven ruthless at worst and indifferent at best to threats to and the taking of human life across the Egyptian political spectrum and of nonpolitical actors, not just of Islamists as some would claim.  This was exemplified on July 4, when security forces agreed to intervene only to rescue Christian women and children from being killed by an angry Muslim mob, consciously refusing to help the men despite family members begging them to do so,[2] which resulted in the slaughter of four Christians. Such mismanagement undermines nationalist discourses of security and of the military valiantly protecting civilians. Rather, it highlights the narrow self-interest but also incompetence of often arcane institutions that are yet to be reformed—as demanded back in January 2011.

The fact that the call to take to the streets comes from el-Sisi, as opposed to the interim civilian president, Adli Mansour, taps into reigning nationalist sentiment that presently idealizes and elevates the military in its battle against the violence Egypt’s streets are witnessing. This fact also undermines the quick civilian transfer of power to which the military pledged on July 3.

Egyptians are facing a campaign of intimidation and violence from the Islamist camp, which is understandably disgruntled with the recent course of events, but which is also at odds with reality and with the fact that the overwhelming majority of their fellow countrymen and women firmly rejected Brotherhood rule for a range of legitimate reasons. And while the Egyptian state is entitled to take whatever legal measures necessary to confront that violence, if anyone should make the case, not just to Egyptians but to the world, it should be Mansour. In so doing, Egypt’s path to democracy would be more clearly indicated.

Furthermore, in rejecting “terrorism” without defining it, the call risks vigilante and extrajudicial action by angry citizens against each other. And while it is unlikely that Egypt will descend to full-scale civil war, such a call is likely to degenerate into protracted wars of attrition in which no one wins and civil rights suffer.

The call by el-Sisi reflects the dilemma in which Egyptians—in particular its revolutionaries—have found themselves since their first uprising in 2011: that of bad choices and false dichotomies.  It seems that Egyptians have come back full circle to Mubarak’s slogan of “it’s me or the Islamists.”  But Egyptians now more than ever must embrace the third choice—that of democracy, not just to preserve their image but their integrity and that of their revolutions.   


[1] Mohamed Abdel-Ghany, “Factbox: 189 Killed in Post-30 June Violence,” Egypt Independent, 23 July 2013, http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/factbox-189-killed-post-30-june-violence.

[2] Amnesty International, “Egypt: There Was No Door on Which I Did Not Knock: Coptic Christians Caught in Attacks and State’s Failures,” 23 July 2013, http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/egypt-there-was-no-door-on-which-i-did-not-knock-coptic-christians-caught-in-attacks-and-state-s-fai.