Conflict & Justice

For Egypt's revolutionaries, military takeover poses hard choices

CAIRO, Egypt — The young revolutionaries who spearheaded Egypt’s 2011 uprising, and later fought the military council that emerged as the nation's rulers from that revolt, are faced with an unusual dilemma.

An unprecedented street-led opposition against former President Mohamed Morsi has again ushered in what some are calling a military coup. 

Morsi, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, had a disastrous year in power that saw violent clashes, political polarization, and an economy hit by fuel shortages and power blackouts.

The push for his ouster, which drew millions to the streets across Egypt beginning June 30, prompted the army, whose own tumultuous rule ended with Morsi’s election last summer, to seize power July 3 and begin appointing a transitional government.

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“Many people don’t like them because of what they did when they ruled,” Amal Sharaf, an activist with the April 6 movement that launched some of the earliest protests against Hosni Mubarak in 2008, said of the military.

Through its Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the military from 2011-2012 committed a number of human rights violations, sent more than 12,000 civilians to military trials, and shot and killed protesters.

“We don’t want to be ruled by the military,” Sharaf, who also participated in anti-Morsi demonstrations this week, said. “But we want to be protected by them.”

Many in the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, outside the presidential palace and in squares across the country cheered the military intervention Wednesday. Despite the army’s recent record of abuse, a large swath of Egyptians still sees the military as a force of stability in an increasingly chaotic political and economic scene.

People viewed Morsi as not only incompetent but also a dictatorial leader who aimed to consolidate his rule and empower his Islamist allies. Under his watch, activists were prosecuted for “insulting the presidency” and the economy failed to recover.

Police torture of activists and civilians increased, rights groups said, though just how much control Morsi had over the interior ministry was a matter of dispute.

Gigi Ibrahim is an activist with Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists and became a sort of poster child for the 2011 revolution after appearing frequently in the international media. She says she is disturbed by the high level of pro-military sentiment among the anti-Morsi crowds — yet admits she also finds herself in a bind.

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Military interference was the only way an interim plan could be imposed, she said, even if activists shouldn’t give the army a free pass for helping topple Morsi.

Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced Wednesday night that the army was suspending the constitution and that an interim president, Adly Mansour, would be sworn in. Sisi also said there would be fresh presidential and parliamentary elections, but did not give a timeframe for the new polls.

“We don’t have a revolutionary power in control of all the institutions, of all of the arms of the state, to be able to enforce this,” Ibrahim said. “The military is the only one capable of doing this.”

"The Big Pharaoh," the online moniker for an activist with a strong social media presence, says there are fundamental differences between the military takeover now and the one that came after Mubarak.

Sworn in as defense minister in August, Sisi is just 58 — much younger than his predecessor, the 77-year-old Mohamed Tantawi who headed SCAF but is now retired.

The new top brass “are not that old, so they have a fresh, younger way of looking at things,” the Egyptian blogger said. “They are not the most democratic people on earth but they are different from the old Soviet-era generals.”

The Big Pharaoh says he is confident in the power of the people and that they will never again accept a repressive regime. 

Others, however, are not so quick to let the army take the lead implementing steps in the transition.

The night Sisi deposed Morsi live on state television, everyone around former activist Marwa Nasser was clapping. “And I didn’t” clap, she said. 

Nasser appeared alongside Ibrahim on a February 2011 cover of Time magazine, sporting a peace sign and a wide smile in the midst of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

This time, she wants nothing to do with the military leaders.

“I’m not very happy and optimistic about it," Nasser said of the takeover. “I’m not sure what to call it — a coup or a revolution. I can’t trust them. When they interfered [before], there was even more bloodshed.”

Right now, the army is still trying civilians in military courts, says human rights advocate Maha Maamoun.

The army has also stepped up its arrest of members of the Brotherhood across Egypt, including its supreme guide and other top leaders.

Because of moves like this, for some “the intervention of the military in politics is a difficult pill to swallow,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the US-based think tank The Century Foundation.

Tarek Shalaby, a prominent activist, was also irked to see the generals praised in the celebrations of Morsi’s ouster.

“I'm shocked at activists cheering on the army's coup and the subsequent crackdown of Islamists like it's all part of #Jan25!” he posted on Twitter July 3, using the hash tag that marked the day of the first protests against Mubarak in 2011.

“Unbelievable!” he wrote.