EGYPT ON THE BRINK, GENERAL WARNS
Top general urges co-operation between Islamists, opposition as violence continues
An Egyptian protester shows off used ammunition after the capture of a state security armoured vehicle that demonstrators commandeered during clashes with security forces and brought to Tahrir Square in Cairo on Tuesday. Egypt’s top general, Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, warned Tuesday that the country was at risk of ‘collapse’ if the ‘continuing conflict between political forces’ did not cease. Matthew Fisher reports from Egypt,
Egypt’s top general publicly warned Tuesday that the country was at risk of “collapse” if the “continuing conflict between political forces” did not end.
In a speech to cadets at a military academy that was later posted on Facebook, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi also said troops deployed in three cities a few hours northeast of Cairo on Sunday were not there to quell days of bloody protests which had left more than 50 dead, but to guard the Suez Canal which has been one of the few economic engines in the country that is still running smoothly.
Sisi contradicted what Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi had said when he announced emergency measures on the weekend that put soldiers on the streets of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez for the next month and gave them special powers to arrest civilians.
It seemed that Sisi, not Morsi was right about what those forces might actually do. For the second evening in a row, the military stood aside as many residents of the three towns on the Suez Canal ignored a curfew and held relatively peaceful marches.
Taken together, the two events signalled that while Morsi and his government may have carried the country by a wide margin in elections last year, they no longer held sway along the Suez, where residents have been at odds with Cairo’s authority for decades. They were also a sharp reminder to Egyptians that the military remains a powerful force in the country with huge business holdings and that it will not be shy about protecting its interests.
Sisi’s speech was probably a not so subtle attempt to try to bully the Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi and its secular and Christian opponents into finally talking with each other about their many differences. However, until now there have been no hints that the opposition will consider getting together for talks with Morsi’s government, despite repeated requests from the presidential palace to do so.
What Sisi had to say to the cadets Tuesday gave credence to quiet suggestions that have been circulating that the only way forward for Egypt may have to be for the military to once again impose its will on the country, as it had for half a century until the Egyptian revolution two years ago. Underlining the depth of the crisis, Sisi, who is also the defence minister, further warned that the country’s deep political divisions threatened the welfare of future generations and were “a dangerous matter that harms Egyptian national security.”
Rioting appeared to be abating Tuesday in towns along the Suez, where AP reported that tanks were being deployed for the first time. But there were fresh bursts of sporadic violence Tuesday near the centre of Cairo. As the police and the opposition fought on one shore of the Nile, and Canada and other western embassies kept their doors closed, a few metres away, at the Semiramis InterContinental, which is popular with journalists because it overlooks Tahrir Square, a group of young men invaded and wrecked the lobby before being chased out by security forces. There were reports that a second invasion of the luxury hotel was underway late Tuesday.
Other groups of protesters came under tear gas attack by police in Cairo on Tuesday, particularly on and near a bridge that runs over the Nile and leads to the square. The highlight for those rioters may have been when they captured and burned an armoured car that had belonged to the country’s security forces.
It looks now as if there is little Morsi can do if the protesters are able to behave with impunity because the security forces are picking and choosing where and whether to intervene on the president’s behalf. The one good thing about this latest political drama in Egypt is that until now the Muslim Brotherhood has told its followers to stay home. If they are turned loose at some point, violence would escalate spectacularly, raising the spectre of some kind of civil war in the Arab world’s most populous country.
The beleaguered government did offer a small fig leaf to the opposition on Tuesday when a minister suggested that the country’s controversial new constitution, which is the pretext for many of the current demonstrations, may be amended by a committee of law professors and politicians representing what a semi-official state news organization called “primary political forces.”
A lot more of such compromises will be required by Morsi, the various opposition factions and the security forces if Egypt’s political crisis is not to further worsen in the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections still scheduled for April.
Egyptian protesters clash with riot police near Tahrir Square in Cairo on Tuesday. Intense fighting forced the U.S. Embassy to suspend public services on Tuesday.