CAIRO, Egypt — As Egypt’s rival camps gear up for mass demonstrations in Cairo and other cities Friday, after the country’s defense minister called on Egyptians to rally in support of his fight against “terrorism,” the atmosphere here is reaching a fever pitch.
Egypt's military announced Thursday that the Muslim Brotherhood has until Saturday to join the army-backed political transition, but did not say what would happen if the movement rejects the call.
It’s been three weeks since the military, boosted by millions of protesting Egyptians, dismissed democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi and appointed fresh leaders to steer the country toward the next elections.
At least 100 people have been killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, and in a massacre of pro-Morsi demonstrators outside an army installation in Cairo July 8. Morsi supporters also fired back at army and police.
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Attacks on and explosions at security installations in the restive North Sinai province, but also in areas close to Cairo, have raised concerns an armed opposition is forming against the military coup.
The rhetoric on both sides has intensified as a result, displaying Egypt’s stark and dangerous divisions as the country struggles to establish democratic rule.
Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a speech Wednesday that Egyptians should take to the streets Friday to give him “the authority to face terrorism and violence.”
Critics said the move would grant the police and military carte blanche to crack down hard on the Brotherhood, with which it has had a long and tumultuous relationship. An unknown number of its members, including senior leaders, are already in jail.
Senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam al-Erian said Morsi loyalists would not be intimidated by the army chief's call.
"Your threat will not prevent millions from continuously protesting," Erian said in a statement on his Facebook page.
For their part, some Brotherhood members or Islamist supporters claim that Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church is mobilizing Christians in support of the army.
“I think Sisi is calling for a civil war by asking Egyptians to support him by going down in the streets,” said Mohammed Fathi, a Morsi supporter.
Thousands of Morsi’s followers have demonstrated for their former leader, being held incommunicado, to be reinstated. They are currently staging sit-ins outside the Rabaa El Adawya mosque in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City, and at Nahda Square near Cairo University.
Both sites have seen armed clashes.
“We are afraid thugs will use this as an excuse to attack us, and then eventually the army to come in and also attack us,” Fathi said. “We are peaceful protesters who simply want the president all the Egyptians elected back — this call for violence is not justified.”
But many Egyptians say Sisi’s speech — and Friday’s pro-military protests — will prove to the world that Morsi’s ouster was not a coup, but a response to the will of the people.
By most estimates, millions took to the streets on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration June 30 to call for snap presidential elections.
In power for just one year, Morsi presided over a stalled economy, increasing unrest and a rise in sectarian violence. Power cuts and fuel shortages made life increasingly difficult for ordinary Egyptians.
In November, he rammed through a controversial constitution after granting himself temporary but sweeping powers.
“Of course I am going down [to protest] on Friday,” said 40-year-old Cairo pharmacist, Jehan Saidi. “Sisi freed us from the miseries of Morsi — and now we have to get rid of everyone who has the potential to become another Morsi.”
Under former President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood was often vilified as dangerous militants, though they were allowed to run as independents in Egypt’s parliamentary elections.
The group formed a formal political party in the wake of Mubarak’s fall in February 2011, securing victories in parliamentary and presidential elections.
But the perception that Morsi and his Brotherhood colleagues were linked with other Islamist movements around the region, including Hamas in Gaza, never really went away.
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“We all wanted to give Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood a chance, but they proved to us all that they are traitors — or at least their leaders are,” said Tamer Said, a 50-year-old banker. “They all should be arrested and shot for treason.”
Others say Egyptians just want to see security restored, something they believe only the army can do.
Egypt’s military ruled the country from February 2011 to August 2012, during which troops committed serious human rights violations and sent more than 12,000 civilians to military trials.
But a long history of pro-military fervor means many Egyptians still view the army as the nation’s sole source of stability.
“Most Egyptians want security at any cost, and the army is offering that,” said activist Walaa Saeda.
“They see the Muslim Brotherhood as being responsible for violence in the streets, as being responsible for the violence in Sinai,” she said.
Indeed, violence is on the rise in the already volatile North Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip. Inhabited by nomadic Bedouin tribesmen who resent Cairo’s rule, the area was never fully under government control.
Following the uprising two years ago, locals routed security forces, paving the way for militant groups to establish a base.
Since Morsi was toppled on July 3, at least 11 security personnel have been killed in attacks in North Sinai, according to Egypt’s interior minister.
Brotherhood leader Mohamed Beltagy said earlier this month that attacks would stop if Morsi was reinstated, prompting charges the Brotherhood is linked to jihadist militants there. But firm connections have never been established.
“The army was never popular in Sinai,” said Ahmed, a Bedouin resident of North Sinai’s provincial capital, El Arish. “And after the ousting of Morsi, [they] are less so. There are bloody days ahead.”
In Cairo, Saeda is similarly afraid.
“There will be violence, and Sisi knows this,” Saeda said. “This is why he sought a mandate from the people before he cracks down on the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“He is very cunning and this is dangerous for anyone who seeks to oppose him.”