For the Love of the Egyptian Army?: Laying Down ‘The will of the People’

By: Mona Abdel-Fadil, Senior Researcher, Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies

On Wednesday, Field Marshall Al- Sisi called upon Egyptians to ‘show the will of the people’ and flood to the streets and squares of Egypt to give the military the mandate to crack down on violence and terrorism, on Friday. Today is the Friday that Sisi has asked Egyptians to march and show ‘the will of the people’. And, there is much tension in the air. Mind you, ‘the will of the people’ is a contested phrase.  Much like ‘save the revolution’ and ‘for democracy’ – ‘the will of the people’ is thrown about by a number of politically engaged parties, to very different ends. This speech sparked a number of reactions from rejoice, to anger, to fear and critique and was discussed wildly by Egyptians in social media. For the uninitiated in these intense mediatized debates, it would seem that one hears mostly about the rejoice, and perhaps a little about the anger. In this blog, I’ll try to widen the angle.

This morning, on Al Jazeera English, claims were made by a studio guest that in Egypt today -there is only one side working for democracy, those of who have been working for democracy for 60 years, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood. The other side is calling for military (undemocratic) rule.

This in my opinion is a hugely over-simplistic description of the political landscape in Egypt.

It is admittedly very difficult to gain a complete overview of the political tensions and spectrum at the moment. One of the major questions is of course whether in fact there is a political spectrum or whether there are only political blocs with few nuances. Is it simply the Muslim Brotherhood vs. the Rest? The rest including: the Army, Tamarud campaigners, fulul (Mubarak remnants), the sofa party (the undecided). This is certainly an impression that is easy to obtain from both international and local media. It may also be a partial truth. However, there are important nuances that should be added on, to make the picture slightly more accurate.

While many Egyptian media outlets are painting disturbingly glorious and heroic images of the role of the Egyptian army and publishing articles with numerous quotes from ordinary Egyptians declaring their love for the army, even amongst those with obvious Muslim Brotherhood support. This only serves to underline the point made by myself and other analysts, that the military continues to ensure that they are the red line in terms of media coverage and ensure their interests – regardless of who is the formal head of state.

Even, Muslim Brotherhood supporters rallying against the ousting of Mursi, are rarely sited declaring outright hatred towards the military. Sometimes, they talk of the army as ‘beautiful’, but Sisi as ‘a problem’, as in the case of a recent interview with Mursi’s brother.

The implication in media coverage is nonetheless that the Muslim Brotherhood are angry – angry with the military for the detention of Mursi and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, not least with Sisi’s latest call for people to gather in the streets and squares of Egypt to give the army popular mandate to fight terrorism and extremists, in this context the not subtle implication is ‘The Muslim Brotherhood = terrorists’. In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood is under attack from every angle. And, not least from the military. Against this backdrop – sentiments of both hatred and distrust of the army by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers, are conceivable even if not always expressed as such.

While I will not accuse the local media who continuously spit out declarations of love for the army, for fabricating all of this ‘love’, I can question the one-sidedness of the story and see it is an attempt to sway the population to support the current army incentive to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, with the blessing of what they hope will be the majority of Egyptians. While sentiments of both hatred and love of the army certainly do exist, the picture is much more multifaceted.

Certainly, love of the army and an uncritical embracement of the army’s goals is not an entirely accurate rendering of what is going on amongst Egyptian activists who participated in the Tamarud campaign to get rid of Mursi. While those who designed the Tamarud campaign may feel a catch 22 obligation to support the army now, as an act of reciprocity – many of them are in all likelihood far from comfortable with this new alliance, and it’s potential consequences of further strife and violence.

More importantly there are several critical voices. For instance, the 6th of April Youth movement have openly declared that they will not join the demonstrations called upon by Sisi as they consider the call a recipe for more violence and clashes amongst supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, and argue that this should be a time of reconciliation. Many individual oppositional political activists and intellectuals have written critical pieces on the same issues, on a variety of media platforms. These activists and intellectuals do not back down from their critique of the Muslim Brotherhood, yet they disagree with detainment of Mursi, the violent crack down on Muslim Brotherhood supporters and many also dispute the portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘terrorists’. Yes, they wanted an end to Mursi’s reign, but the most repeated phrase in their writings is ‘not in this way’. They fear that ‘Sisi’s way’ is a declaration of ‘civil war’, and an attempt to get a carte blanche from ‘the people’ to violate the civil rights of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They refuse to be a part of this. This harsh critique of Sisi and the military exists within the Egyptian political landscape, and in my opinion must not be treated as if it is not there. Silencing or disregarding these critical voices contributes to a more polarized Egypt, an Egypt that benefits certain political stances over others – and makes Egypt a much more violent space to live in.

The tanks now lining Egyptian streets, combined with Sisi’s recent speech and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since the 3rd of July is challenging the perspective that the Egyptian army did not plan a power takeover from the very start…  or – at the very least – it adds to the grievances of those Mursi-opponents who saw a strong military involvement as the price one had to pay, but had hoped for something far better than this…

It remains to be seen what will happen today and how many people will march with Sisi (and for the Muslim Brotherhood)… It also remains to be seen how much today’s events will divide Egypt further.

Certainly many Egyptians will pour into the squares with Sisi, because the narrative of ‘stability’ is a salient frame in the Egyptian context, as are stories of double agents and spies – the most recent media take on Mursi. These rumors have now been topped off with today’s announcement of the detainment of Mursi for 14 days on the grounds of plotting with Hamas to interfere in internal affairs in Egypt.

The timing of Mursi’s detainment is highly questionable and invites to more conspiracy theories about just what it is the army is up to.  This latest development may wake some of the slumbering critical voices into action – and make the critique of the military stronger in the public sphere. Or it might ignite the already agitated pro and anti Mursi camps, that will take to the streets today. Fear of violent clashes seems ever more present. Yet, ‘the will of the (Egyptian) people’ in deeds and who sides with whom-  may not necessarily be a neat overlap with what Al-Sisi hopes  ‘the will of the people’ means.

Once again Egyptians within and outside of Egypt hold their breath and hope for the best, and pray that there may be as little bloodshed as possible today and in the days and weeks to come …

I predict that Sisi and his allies will at some point discover that ‘The love of the army’ is precarious and will be determined by how things evolve from here…