Egypt’s army has been a powerful force in the country’s politics since the 1950s but today it faces a volatile challenge of perhaps unprecedented explosive potential.
When it stepped in to remove Mohamed Mursi because top officers who consider the army the guardian of stability felt he was endangering stability, it set itself against the will of the large part of Egyptians who voted the president into office – even though a great number agreed with the criticism and welcomed the president’s removal.
Armed forces chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, who led that move, said: “The will of the Egyptian people alone is what governs us. We respect it, we protect it, with objectivity, fairness, honour – and without deceit. We will not allow Egypt to enter a dark tunnel of conflict or internal fighting or civil war.”
General Sissi’s supporters deny he is responsible for a military coup, strictly speaking, because so many in the country felt that the government, in not carrying out its duty of ruling by principles of democratic pluralism, forced the army to do its duty.
One Sissi supporter said: “This is the victory of the Egyptian people. We are against the Muslim Brotherhood. The Defence Minister is the hero of Egypt.”
That showed the return of the military’s credibility, after losing it after the 2011 revolution. But Mursi’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters are furious that the democratically elected president has been deposed, that tanks are out, and that protesters have been killed in clashes.
One of them appealed for international attention, saying: “We chose democracy — elections. We have learned a lot from the West and we have elected a president and chose freedom. The whole world has witnessed what we have achieved, but it is all destroyed now.”
For five days, the Muslim Brotherhood has urged the people to rise up against the army. Mursi was the Brotherhood’s candidate when the elections were held following the Arab Spring.
Brotherhood supreme guide Mohamed Badie said: “We are willing to sacrifice ourselves to protect our president Mohamed Mursi.”
The army is in phase with much of Egypt’s population today. The scene of giant crowds resembles those of 2011, but while then they spoke as one, now you have pro- and anti-Mursi sides – the people are not united in the direction they want to take.
The army chief said it is not interested in running the country, yet it now appears faced with a choice between leaving control to struggling civil institutions and becoming a force of violent repression.