Breakdown of peace talks

Supporters of Mr Morsi

Supporters of Mr Morsi


Originally published in The Independent, 7 August 2013

Egyptians will celebrate one of the most significant days in the Muslim calendar this morning – but they will do so facing perhaps the gravest crisis since the fall of Hosni Mubarak two and a half years ago.

On the eve of the Eid al-Fitr festival, the holiday which marks the end of Ramadan, Egypt’s interim President, Adli Mansour, issued a bleak statement announcing that 10 days of talks to solve a dangerous impasse between supporters and opponents of Mohamed Morsi, the deposed leader, had failed.

The statement from Mr Mansour’s office declared that the Muslim Brotherhood – whose followers have been camped out in their thousands for more than a month on the streets of Cairo – was “fully responsible for the failure of these efforts”.

Following weeks of oscillation between threats of an anti-Islamist crackdown and gestures of apparent reconciliation, Mr Mansour’s words appeared to indicate that a state-led backlash against the Brotherhood might be imminent. “I’m sorry to say, but we’re closer to all-out war,” said Sherif Taher, a senior liberal politician.

A leading Brotherhood figure, speaking to The Independent, responded by calling the Egyptian authorities “vampires”. “They cannot satisfy their desire for blood,” said Essam el-Erian, the vice chairman of the Brotherhood’s political wing, who is currently wanted for arrest after prosecutors issued warrants for him and other Islamists.

He warned that the Egyptian government could “not imagine what would happen” if it tried to clear Mr Morsi’s supporters from the streets. But he added that Brotherhood protesters were peaceful and unarmed. “We don’t have anything. It will not be a battle. It will be a massacre,” he said.

Following the presidential statement, Egypt’s Prime Minister Hazem El Beblawi announced on state television that a decision had been taken to clear the Brotherhood from its two Cairo encampments. The decision, he added, was “irreversible”.

The day’s developments came after a week-long flurry of shuttle diplomacy designed to halt Egypt’s slide into further civil unrest.

Envoys from Europe, Washington and the Gulf states have been criss-crossing Cairo in an effort to bridge the ostensibly insurmountable positions held by hardliners on both sides.

Supporters of Mr Morsi have publicly said that they will rejoin the transitional “road map” only once the toppled president is restored to power and the Morsi-sponsored constitution of 2012 is resurrected.

Their opponents, who engineered last month’s popular coup because of  fears of an Islamist autocracy, countered that such a move would be impossible. Amid the growing, media-fuelled climate of anti-Brotherhood loathing, many had increasingly come to reject the group altogether as a potential political partner.

Ikbal Baraka, an Egyptian writer, told The Independent that Egyptians were following the lead of Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum to the IRA that Britain would never negotiate with terrorists – a reference to the belief among many liberals that the Brotherhood is little more than a network of would-be Islamist militants. “The Egyptian people have changed,” she said. “They will not accept that we will be friends with the Brotherhood and bury the hatchet.”

In a sign of the uncompromising mood among many of the group’s opponents, John McCain – the one-time US presidential candidate who was in Egypt to offer mediation alongside fellow Senator Lindsey Graham – triggered angry reactions from politicians and talk show hosts when he used a televised press conference to call for the release of detained Islamists.

Responding to Mr McCain, who later told a US interviewer that he “didn’t know” the political crisis in Egypt was “this bad”, Ahmed Said, the chairman of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, said that viewers had felt “insulted” watching the senator. “I’m telling you these two guys do not understand what Egypt is about,” he said.


Egypt leaders plan strike against Brotherhood

A pic of Gen. al-Sisi, the power behind the Egyptian government

A pic of Gen. al-Sisi, the power behind the Egyptian government


Originally published in The Independent, 31 July 2013

Egyptian authorities gave the strongest indication yet that security forces were preparing a strike against the Muslim Brotherhood – announcing in a televised statement that the group’s month-long Cairo sit-in was a threat to ‘national security’ and would soon be ended.

The statement, which was issued by the country’s interim cabinet, prompted fears that of another deadly confrontation between authorities and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

The move against the sit-in protest came as it emerged that Egypt’s prosecutors have referred three of the Brotherhood’s most senior figures for trial.

They include the group’s revered Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, along with his deputy Khairat al-Shater and senior leader Rashad Bayoumi. All three are wanted for charges related to inciting violence.

At least 300 people have been killed in nationwide clashes since the June 30 – the date the former president Mohamed Morsi was toppled by an army-led coup. The dead include scores of Islamists who have been gunned down during two separate massacres within the space of three weeks – more than 80 of whom were killed on Sunday when police tried to disperse the sit-in at Rabaa.

The developments raised fears that an anti-Islamist crackdown – which has been anticipated by many since an ominous speech by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s top military commander public face of the coup, last week – is now imminent.

During its televised address, the interim cabinet said that “terrorist acts” and continued traffic disruption were no longer acceptable and “represent a threat to Egyptian national security”.

It added: “The cabinet decided to begin taking all necessary measures to address these dangers and put an end to them, commissioning the interior minister to do all that is necessary regarding this matter within the framework of the constitution and the law.”

Since the first day of the June 30 revolt, tens of thousands of Mr Morsi’s supporters have been maintaining a vigil from two giant tent encampments in separate parts of the city.

The largest, in the suburb of Nasr City in eastern Cairo, has often been filled with tens of thousands of people.

The vast majority of them appear adamant that they will not leave the streets until Mohamed Morsi is reinstated as President – an impossible demand for the Brotherhood’s opponents to recognise. Any attempt to clear so many protesters by force would turn into a bloodbath.

This evening [WED] Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, remained resolute in his assurance that Mr Morsi’s supporters would not melt away. “We don’t recognise this government and we don’t recognise the authorities or the laws they represent,” he told Reuters.

Speaking to The Independent, a pro-Morsi activist said he was not afraid of the impending crackdown. “How much worse can it get?” asked Mohamed Soltan, referring to the two massacres which took place this month. “The government doesn’t understand that blood is the fuel and fire of revolutions.”

Egypt has become dangerously polarised over the course of the past month. Many people – spurred on by a resolutely anti-Brotherhood media – have begun to think of the Islamists camped in Nasr City as little more than a gang of would-be militants.

Statements from the military and television presenters have roused a collective fear of the national “terrorist” threat – conflating a genuine problem of Islamic militancy in North Sinai with scaremongering aimed at followers of Mohamed Morsi.

“The pro-Morsi protest is not a sit-in,” said Haitham al-Shawaf, a member of a youth revolutionary group. “The people there are not protesters, they are militants.”

In a bid to counter the increasingly trenchant rhetoric emerging from both sides, a group calling itself the Third Square movement has occupied yet another plaza in eastern Cairo with a view to rejecting both the influence of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet in a sign of how little traction is being gained by appeals to moderation, the campaign has already earned the opprobrium of Tamarod, the youth movement which spearheaded the June 30 revolt.

The group’s spokesman, Mohamed Abdul Aziz, said Third Square was “dividing the people”, adding: “They are living in the past. Now is the time for consensus, we need to move forward.”

Morsi’s supporters defy massacre

Supporters of Mohamed Morsi have vowed to continue the fight

Supporters of Mohamed Morsi have vowed to continue the fight


Originally published in The Independent, 28 July 2013

Supporters of toppled President Mohamed Morsi vowed to continue defying government threats to clear them from their sprawling tent encampment in eastern Cairo – despite the massacre of scores of protesters by security forces over the weekend.

Inside a mosque at the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo sit-in, a young student showed The Independent a bullet which until the early hours of Sunday morning had been lodged millimetres from his brain.

Abdul Rahman Mohamed, a 19-year-old from Alexandria, had been protesting alongside Mr Morsi’s supporters when they were caught up in Saturday’s bloodbath.

At least 72 civilians are known to have been gunned down by the security services. Doctors said the true figure was significantly higher.

Mr Mohamed, who narrowly avoided losing his sight, was one of the lucky ones – the bullet coming to a rest between his right eye socket and the bridge of his nose.

But if others think he was fortunate, he himself would beg to differ. “This was not luck,” he said, as a nearby friend clutched an X-ray of his skull. “This was from God.”

He said not even a bullet to the head could persuade him to leave the streets. “If they think that this will stop me, then they are dreaming.”

His words came as Egypt’s Prime Minister was granted the authority to give the military extensive powers of arrest, fuelling the concerns of those who are predicting an imminent anti-Islamist crackdown.

For the past month – since the beginning of the popular revolt which led to Morsi’s removal by the army – supporters of the Mr Morsi have been stubbornly defying the government from their tent city in Rabaa al-Adawiya, a neighbourhood of eastern Cairo.

Sprawled along a mile-long criss-cross of wide open avenues – with the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and nearby speakers’ stage at its centre – the month-long protest has become a thorn in the sides of those who had hoped for a smooth post-insurrection transition.

In spite of Saturday’s killings – and in the face of veiled threats from General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s top commander, to use a popular mandate to crack down on “terrorism” – protesters who spoke to The Independent yesterday appeared defiant.

“We have two choices,” said Ayman Youssef, a physics teacher, as he sheltered from the midday sun beneath the canvas of his tent. “Victory or death. There are no other options.”

Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who feel grievously betrayed by the manner of Morsi’s ousting, continue to spurn the transitional process. An interim President has been selected, the constitution is being rewritten – and yet one of the nation’s key political powers sits sniping from the sidelines, angry and embittered.

“Al-Sisi belongs in a gang,” said Dr Wafaa Hefny, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing who works in the sit-in’s media centre. “They are stealing Egypt and selling it to the Israelis and Americans.”

In the epic Egyptian wrestle over concepts of democratic legitimacy, the powers behind this month’s revolt have cast their campaign as the very essence of democratic empowerment against a would-be theocratic dictatorship.

The Brotherhood, meanwhile, points its tormentors to last year’s election result – that is all the legitimacy they need, members argue.

In the growing climate of anti-Brotherhood hysteria, such finer points of debate have become sullied by vitriol and groundless anti-terrorism smears.

All the while, the encampment at Rabaa al-Adawiya has become a very public symbol of Islamist recalcitrance.

Enormous banners featuring beaming photos of Mr Morsi greet visitors at the main entrances – yet great piles of sandbags stretched across the highway betray an inner sense of siege.

About half a mile west from the main sit-in, at the spot where scores of protesters were gunned down on Saturday, Mohamed Anwar Khalaq stood behind the barricade of brick paving stones which marks the outer limits of the ongoing protest.

The 45-year-old told The Independent his brother had been killed during the July 8 massacre, when more than 50 supporters of Mr Morsi were gunned down by the military outside the headquarters of the Republican Guard.

“They fire their guns because they are paid to do so, but we are here for the sake of our religion,” he said. “I hope for the same fate as my brother.”

Tahrir Square becomes army territory

A chopper flies near Tahrir Square

A chopper flies near Tahrir Square


Originally published in The Independent, 27 July 2013

A Cairo plaza that was once the crucible of a revolt against tyranny was transformed into a plaything of Egypt’s conservative military yesterday, as tens of thousands of people flocked into Tahrir Square to show their support for an expected army operation to crush the Muslim Brotherhood.

Amid the buzz of Apache helicopters swooping low, huge numbers began filling the square in response to a call by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the country’s top military commander.

The general, who is perhaps the key power behind the civilian throne of interim President Adli Mansour, startled observers by calling for nationwide rallies in order to grant his troops a “mandate” to tackle “terrorism”.

At least two people were killed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after demonstrators heeded Sisi’s call, raising fears of more bloody confrontations over the weekend.

Egypt’s military has made no mention of the Brotherhood by name. Yet Sisi’s comments were widely understood to be a grave warning to the Islamist group.

Its leaders – who have implacably rejected the popular coup which ousted the Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi earlier this month – held their own rallies across the country yesterday. The military has said the group has until today to sign up to the ongoing transitional process.

Yesterday the stakes were raised when a court ordered the detention of Mr Morsi over a series of allegations including charges of murder.

The investigation centres around a prison break shortly after the January 2011 revolt in which Mr Morsi and other inmates escaped. Prosecutors allege that the former President collaborated with the Palestinian militant group Hamas during the breakout, in which 14 guards were killed.

The toppled President is currently being held at an unknown location. But any legal measures would further stoke tensions. Tahrir Square, the scene of numerous clashes with the military police and central security forces (CSF) over the past two and a half years, yesterday emerged as a platform for Egypt’s so-called ‘deep state’ – the stubbornly entrenched network comprising the army, security apparatus and political and business interests.

Several police riot vans were parked inside the square, while there were also reports of officers checking the ID cards of protesters entering the rally. “The ruination of Tahrir as a revolutionary space is complete,” local film-maker, Omar Robert Hamilton, said on Twitter.

The face of Gen Sisi, the former military intelligence chief who is now riding a crest of widespread popularity, was everywhere.  Street hawkers sold posters of the commander for 20p a time, while others carried banners of him alongside Gamal Abdel Nasser, the 1960s autocrat who won the hearts of Egyptians through his defiance of Britain’s colonial ambitions and his own populist political agenda.

Adil el-Mansi, a 50-year-old teacher who was wearing a picture of the general around his neck, told The Independent that yesterday was his first ever protest in Tahrir Square. “I came for the security of Egypt,” he said. “I am against the terrorists.”

Spurred on by the military, Egypt’s media has successfully conflated the Muslim Brotherhood with an amorphous “terrorist” threat. The front page of yesterday’s Al Masry Al Youm, a leading private newspaper, declared that ‘Today, terrorism is in the grip of the revolution’.

Other liberal and secular groups have not openly questioned Gen Sisi’s position. “All the remnants of the old regime are now celebrating as if they have had a new baby after waiting for many years,” said Egyptian journalist Dina Samak, who added “it’s not going to last long, because quite simply, nothing being promised to the people will be delivered.”

Showdown in Cairo

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for nationwide rallies

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for nationwide rallies


Originally published in The Independent, 24 July 2013

A decisive confrontation may be looming between Egypt’s military and the Muslim Brotherhood after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the country’s top commander, issued an unprecedented call for mass demonstrations on Friday to grant his forces a “mandate” to crack down on “terrorism”.

The request, which was issued during a televised speech by Gen. al-Sisi at a military parade, was widely interpreted as a shot across the bows of the Muslim Brotherhood – a group which has faced increasing demonisation from politicians and talk show hosts in recent weeks.

Amid the febrile and bitter atmosphere which is enveloping the country, Brotherhood leaders have been accused of cultivating connections to Islamist radicals in the lawless North Sinai region and inciting violent protests across Egypt.

Supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the toppled Brotherhood President, are still maintaining separate sit-ins outside Cairo University and also in Nasr City, an eastern suburb in the capital.

If large numbers of protesters heed Gen. al-Sisi’s call on Friday, it raises the prospect of another dangerous confrontation following a month in which more than 100 people have been killed.

“Are we going to see Egypt’s first democratic massacre?” said one activist on Twitter, in reference to a belief among some that the military was seeking a popular mandate to crush the Brotherhood.

Ahmed el-Hawary, a co-founder of the liberal Dostour Party, told the Independent that while he respected the right of peaceful protest, he supported a crackdown against the Brotherhood’s senior figures.

“The leadership should be tried as criminals and terrorists,” he said, adding that the EU was guilty of encouraging the group’s continued recalcitrance.

Gen al-Sisi’s intervention came following a bomb blast yesterday morning outside the security service headquarters in Mansoura, a city in the Nile Delta. Local media reported that one person was killed and 28 injured in the explosion, which officials said had been caused by a timed TNT device.

But his speech has also raised serious questions about the military’s role in Egypt’s transitional government.

The coalition of youth groups, secularists and liberals which conspired to topple Mr Morsi had initially expressed confidence that the army would not meddle in the affairs of the new civilian cabinet.

It now seems clear that the commander-in-chief – who acts as both Defence Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister – is pulling many of the strings.

“This is dangerous,” said Emad el-Din Shahin, a Cairo-based professor in public policy. “They are leading the country towards a populist, mob-based polity.”

Following a previous revolution in Egypt – the 1952 coup d’état which eventually ushered in Gamal Abdel Nasser – the government erected desert concentration camps to imprison up to 20,000 Islamists who had been detained by the security forces.

If Gen al-Sisi were to attempt his own crackdown on the Brotherhood, he may find he has the sympathy of a significant swathe of the population.

The man who directed the popular coup against Mr Morsi is currently riding a wave of post-revolutionary popularity. Photos of him alongside Nasser are carried by proud protesters in Tahrir Square, while barbers and shopkeepers post his picture on their walls.

In a country where notions of patriotism and the military are inextricably linked, the rising tide of nationalism– and the accompanying portrayal of the Brotherhood as a belligerent fifth column – has helped bolster his position.

According to Mr El-Din Shahin, Gen al-Sisi’s speech – which he delivered wearing wrap-around shades beneath the peak of his gold-embroidered khaki cap – showed he might even be angling for the presidency.

“He looked exactly like a general from a 1970s banana republic,” he said. “He is playing to the sentiments of the Egyptian people and their support for the military institution.”

Following the televised address, some of the political forces behind Morsi’s ouster welcomed his appeal for mass protests tomorrow. “We have a new kind of democracy in Egypt,” said Shehab Wagih, from the liberal Free Egyptians Party. “It is called city square democracy.”

Liberals seek ban on Islamist parties

Liberals want to undermine power of political Islam

Liberals want to undermine power of political Islam


Originally published in The Independent, 21 July 2013

A growing backlash against Egypt’s political Islamists looked set to intensify over the coming weeks as the nation’s revolutionary forces outlined demands to ban religious parties and outlaw political campaigning from mosques.

Fuelled by a climate of resurgent nationalism that has emerged since the army toppled president Mohamed Morsi earlier this month, and which has seen hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrested, many of the nation’s liberal and secular factions are seeking to turn the screw further on Islamist groups by attempting to erase religion from the party political sphere.

The demands threaten to undermine the fragile coalition of liberals and ultra-conservatives that united to topple Morsi, and will further anger Brotherhood supporters marginalised by the removal of their leader.

“We have a major problem with any political party which is strictly based on religious foundations,” said Ahmed al-Hawary, a founding member of the liberal Al-Dostour Party. “I think the idea of having these parties is not one that should be accepted.”

The development came as a 10-member committee charged with amending Egypt’s constitution met for the first time yesterday.

In what represents one of the key initial phases of the national transition process, the panel – which consists of legal experts and senior judges – has one month to come up with suggested changes.

Some of the revolutionary forces who supported the toppling of Mohammed Morsi are hoping their demands relating to the sidelining of political Islam can be worked into the revised constitution.

One of the reasons for their insistence lies in a purely ideological aversion to mixing politics and theology. But there are also pragmatic considerations. There exists a belief that the power accumulated by Egypt’s Islamists over the past two years – and the opposition’s inverse failure to claim an electoral foothold – was a result of their ability to mobilise along religious lines.

“This has been a pattern since the revolution in January 2011,” said Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a senior figure from one of the leading coalitions behind the June 30 revolt. “It’s a major concern for all of us who are not related to political Islam.”

“Egyptians are quite a religious people, so playing with such feeling is not a proper thing and should not be considered fair game between us and the Islamists.”

The 1971 constitution which was in place until the toppling of Hosni Mubarak already contained an article explicitly outlawing religious parties.

After taking power in February 2011, Egypt’s generals issued a constitutional declaration featuring the same stricture. In spite of this ban, the fundamentalist Al-Nour Party was given permission to establish itself – leading to suspicions of a clandestine military-Islamist deal among some activists.

Last year, when an Islamist-dominated assembly rewrote Egypt’s national charter, the provision was then modified.

It is unclear exactly how any of the new demands relating to political Islam would be codified and implemented.

Mr el-Ghazaly Harb said the rules on mosque propaganda could be enforced by the security services working in co-ordination with government ministries.

The coalition now aligned against the Brotherhood supported the huge protests that eventually led to the army forcing Morsi’s removal from power. The army’s involvement led to accusations of undemocratic behaviour.

According to Zaid al-Ali, a Cairo-based constitutional expert, Egypt’s new power-brokers are guilty of exactly the same behaviour they once decried in the Brotherhood. “The problem is that we have one group of people adopting a constitution against another group of people,” he said. “It won’t achieve anything positive.”

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood took to the streets once again yesterday to rally against what they view as an illegitimate coup against the democratically-elected Presidency of Mohamed Morsi.

The Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), was scrupulously careful not to identify itself in explicitly religious terms when it was founded following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011.

Even so, liberal politicians told The Independent they hoped new legislation might make it possible to outlaw the party.

Walid el-Haddad, an official from the FJP, said he would not comment because he rejected the entire transitional process.

“This government arrived on tanks,” he said.

Army puts its spin on the story

Egypt's army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali

Egypt’s army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali


Originally published in The Independent, 11 July 2013

As an army sniper crouched on the roof and trained his rifle on the demonstrators down below, every movement was being tracked on camera.

Not just by the dozens of amateur videographers standing among the Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the street. This time the military had its own cameraman – and he was standing just behind the soldier as he repeatedly fired his rifle into the crowd.

The scene, captured in footage taken during Monday’s massacre of at least 51 civilians in Cairo, encapsulates the army’s growing attempt to add its own spin to events. During the military rule which followed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, it never appeared too concerned about burnishing its public image. That all changed after the arrival of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the current army chief who was promoted by Mohamed Morsi last year.

Perhaps the most striking example of El-Sisi’s new approach was when, in an effort to persuade Mr Morsi to see sense during his final days in power, officials hired an Egyptian film director to record the mass protests from military helicopters. The videos were later shown to the embattled President – but were also leaked to opposition media to pile more pressure on the Egyptian leader.

In addition, El-Sisi appointed an official army spokesman. “I sense they are much more on top of the PR requirements,” said a Cairo-based British official.”

At press conferences this week, army officials have gone to great lengths to win over Western journalists critical of Monday’s massacre. Colonel Ahmed Ali, the army spokesman, told reporters his troops had been forced to kill protesters after being provoked.

“This is not what we were trained to do,” he said. “We were trained to fight and kill the enemy. But this is new. This is the first time in history that we find Egyptian people have guns and rifles and they are aiming them at the military.”

Defiance in Morsi’s back yard

Protesters in Zagazig, Morsi's hometown

Protesters in Zagazig, Morsi’s hometown


Originally published in The Independent, 9 July 2013

A group of village children scampered behind the coffin as it was driven past some mud-brick stables. Inside was the body of Dr Sayeed Abdel Salaam. Until last week he had been a 42-year-old government vet; a father-of-three who gave away much of his money to help local orphans, according to friends. Today he became a statistic – a battered and bloodied victim of the 30 June insurrection.

“I cannot express my feelings,” said Mohamed Demerdash, 37, who was waiting for his friend’s body as it made its way to the Al-Rahman mosque in Hana, a village deep in the Nile Delta. “I am so pessimistic about the future.”

Last week Dr Sayeed had joined a march in Zagazig, the city about 20 minutes’ drive from Hana which is also the provincial home of Mohamed Morsi.

Thousands of Mr Morsi’s supporters had gathered for a rally in support of the ousted leader. A large proportion were women; many of the men had travelled down to Cairo for the larger rallies taking place there. Like many other cities across Egypt over the past week, the protest soon descended into violence when marchers were set upon by locals armed with rocks and knives.

Four people were later reported killed. Dr Sayeed was one of them, his skull repeatedly clubbed by his attackers. Almost inevitably in this dangerously polarised society, the most basic facts of last Thursday’s violence were pawed over by local officials. Followers of the Muslim Brotherhood said the attack was carried out by “thugs” and was entirely unprovoked.

But speaking to The Independent, one official from the liberal Dostour Party claimed that women had been seen carrying weapons and insulting passers-by.

It demonstrates the widening divisions exacerbated by the massacre of 55 pro-Morsi civilian protesters in Cairo on Monday morning. In the wake of the killings, Egypt’s state press offered scant criticism of the military. But many private channels, who have often been highly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, also appeared to play down the bloodshed.

In contrast to when 28 demonstrators, most of them Christians, were killed by the army and security services during the “Maspero massacre” of October 2011, some activists have appeared all too willing to absolve the army and blame the Brotherhood.

Fair or not, it reflects the bitterness that now separates Egypt’s warring factions. In Zagazig, the door of Morsi’s nine-storey apartment block was locked. On the walls nearby, some of the more polite graffiti declared him a “son of a dog”.

Arriving from a nearby demonstration, the local head of the Muslim Sisterhood – the Brotherhood’s female branch – was defiant. “We will stick to the squares and the streets until we regain our democracy,” said Dr Hanan Abdel-Rahman. “We will never surrender.”

Egyptians unlikely to turn on army

The military is Egypt's most popular institution

The military is Egypt’s most popular institution


Originally published in The Independent, 8 July 2013

As the crowds were massing near the Nile on 28 January 2011 – four days into the insurrection which  eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak – armoured personnel carriers suddenly appeared near the famous bronze lions of Qasr el-Nil bridge and raced off towards the city centre clashes.

Thousands of anti-government protesters roared ecstatically; their beloved military, they believed, had come to deliver them from the hated central security services.

The scene underlines the exalted position which the Egyptian army, despite a catalogue of mishaps, mistakes and outright abuses of power during the post-Mubarak transitional phase, still occupies in the minds of many.

Egypt’s generals lurched from crisis to crisis following the fall of Mubarak – from the controversy over “virginity tests” of detained female protesters to the prolific use of military courts to try civilians. Yet its reputation at street level remained intact.

Part of the reason is the role the military has played in defending Egypt from outside aggressors. During the October War against Israel in 1973, the nation’s generals launched what one historian called “one of the most memorable water crossings in the annals of warfare” – sending 100,000 troops across the Suez and routing the opposition. The territorial gains were later reversed, but the October War is still touted as a major victory in Egypt. As Tarek Osman notes in his book, Egypt On the Brink, the nation’s commanders have retained their “exceptional status – ahead of and superior to any other organisation in the country”.

The generals acted as guarantors of the 2011 revolt and last week they performed virtually the same role in depriving Mohamed Morsi of his presidency.  Following yesterday’s massacre, defence chiefs held a press conference in which journalists were shown videos designed to absolve the military of blame – a sign of how the army under its young, dynamic US-educated leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi realise that it is no longer enough simply to take their reputation for granted.

Dr Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert, says the country is at “a moment of truth”. Either General Sisi will manage the transition too forcefully in a bid to counteract the Muslim Brotherhood, or he will step back as promised behind a civil administration, opening the possibility of allowing an Islamist resurgence. “The Brotherhood have got him in a real difficult position,” he said. Dr Springborg added that certain elements within the army are unhappy with General Sisi – a pious man who was courted by the Brotherhood before becoming Mohamed Morsi’s choice of army chief. Many officers believe he helped forge a military-Islamist alliance which has backfired, he said.

“There is a danger the military decides to go after the Brotherhood and crush it. In that case they might push General Sisi aside.