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Raising the stakes on the streets of Egypt

Morsi still commands considerable support. Jonathan Rashad

As the world holds its breath, hundreds of thousands - maybe millions - of protestors will take to the streets of Egypt’s big cities today in what has been widely billed in the international media as a deliberate step towards civil war recklessly taken by the commander of the country’s armed forces, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

On Tuesday al-Sisi, the defence minister and deputy prime minister - and the central player in the removal of the government of Mohamed Morsi - called on “all honest and trustworthy Egyptians” to come out to the streets in large numbers to show the world the determination of the Egyptian people while giving him and the army a “mandate to confront violence and potential terrorism”.

At the very least this is seen as a signal that the army is preparing for a “violent crackdown” against Morsi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Coup or uprising?

Despite the impressive manifestation of popular will on June 30, the reassertion of the military over political life in Egypt was almost unanimously seen as a “coup” internationally. Anticipating the military takeover of civil authority, this narrative of events had in fact been pushed by the Brotherhood’s English-speaking social media platforms and website even before July 3.

Once the army intervened, the “coup” narrative was broadcast by the Qatari-owned and Brotherhood-leaning station al-Jazeera, from where it was adopted by CNN and into the global media loop to the extent that it has become the accepted truth. The same reading of events, that of an authoritarian army bent on killing the democratic baby, breast-fed by the peace-loving Muslim Brotherhood, continues today.

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood continues to invoke the spectre of a looming “civil war”. And though it is crucial to read al-Sisi’s statement and motives with the greatest of care, it seems that it has been already interpreted ante post facto as a carte blanche for the military to commit yet another crime.

But an examination of the facts gives us another picture. Following the removal of Morsi from power on July 3, bloody clashes erupted in Cairo and across cities in Egypt. The next day Muslim Botherhood leader, Mohammed Badie, and Mohamed Beltagy, a member of the Brotherhood’s top executive body, appeared in front of packed crowds at Rabaa al-Adawiyya in Nasir City, the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold.

Words of peace as prelude to violence

Their speeches reiterated the Brotherhood’s commitment to “peaceful methods” while raising the banner of jihad in the name of Islam. Badie’s speech, in particular, was a good example of this: appearing to appeal to global public opinion by promoting peaceful protests while energising the rank and file and through the activation of the image of an external enemy bent on destroying Islam, using charged terminologies such as takfir (“apostasy” – a mortal sin according to a widely rejected interpretation of Islam).

The following night, supporters and opponents of the deposed president clashed at the Kobri el-Gamaa and the 6th of October bridge. From the hundreds of videos uploaded to the web, as well as from interviews I have conducted myself at Cairo University in the aftermath of the clashes, a pattern emerges that might give an indication on the Brotherhood’s ideology and methods.

During the weekend, armed Morsi supporters clashed with opponents in Sidi Gabir, a neighborhood in Alexandria, and other cities in Egypt. One particularly brutal scene shows pro-Morsi people throwing a couple of youngsters off a roof top in the same Alexandrian neighborhood. Meanwhile in the Sinai, armed commandoes exploded a gasoline-line.

The main accounts of the events of July 8 come from two sources: a video uploaded on YouTube which can be found here and an eyewitness account by a young journalist called Mirna el-Helbawy, who lived right above the scene of the shoot-out.

The exact truth of the sequence of events will probably remain unknown. But what seems to be clear is that among the supporters of Morsi, there is a minority of people armed and ready to commit acts of violence. Recruited at least in some instances from abroad, they seem for the most part organised through the Brotherhood’s secretive paramilitary commando structure (historically called the tanzim al-khass or “special apparatus”, but today organized under the qism al-askari or “military section” of the group, which is directly attached to the Guidance Bureau).

It is these armed elements who contributed to the escalation of violence following July 3 and, in light of recent developments, it now seems legitimate to speculate if the Brotherhood has ever truly stopped its romance with political violence, despite of all the assertions of having “renounced” it over the past decades.

Pawns in a darker game

The tragic part of the story is that the greatest part of what is usually called the “Islamists” or “Morsi supporters” continues to be misled by a leadership that sees itself as being locked in a mortal combat against a powerful enemy bent on the destruction of Islam.

The majority of these people, still holding out at Rabaa al-Adawiyya and Cairo University, are decent and respectful citizens who feel duped in their democratic rights, feel that they have an obligation to support what they perceive as the “rule of law” and oppose an illegal intervention by the army to depose a democratically elected president.

While the Brotherhood propaganda machine continues to feed the global media with continued iterations of their peacefulness, it continues at the same time (through its Arabic channels) to mislead its rank and file by invoking Islam in the crudest fashion.

It remains to be seen how large the numbers will be who will follow the commander’s call and whether Sisi indeed commands the authority to mobilise large numbers of Egyptians. It is a risky strategy. And while we can and should speculate about the ulterior motives of Sisi and the army, it should be clear that there are some tangible reasons for him to raise the stakes.

Given the apocalyptic worldview of the Brotherhood and the fact that they are engaged in the financing and arming elements among their own ranks, such a step seems necessary. C

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