Call for protest serious miscalculation by military leader

By Anne Penketh

General Abdelfattah al-Sisi's agenda has been exposed. Photo / AP
General Abdelfattah al-Sisi's agenda has been exposed. Photo / AP

He is the face of the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi and engineered the crackdown on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

His picture adorns the streets across the capital of Egypt, the heart of a region which is accustomed to the personality cult. But General Abdelfattah al-Sisi, Morsi's former Defence Minister, has seriously miscalculated by appealing for mass demonstrations to shore up popular support for the military which triggered clashes over the weekend, leaving at least 72 dead.

It was Cairo's worst violence since the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi, now 58, was one of the youngest members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which ruled Egypt after Mubarak's fall until democratic elections brought the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood to power.

He was the general who defended the military's controversial practice of "virginity tests" on young women detained in Tahrir Square on March 9, 2011, when the army evacuated protesters with cattle prods.

He said afterwards that the internationally derided tests were done "to protect the girls from rape" and "to protect the soldiers and officers from rape accusations".

Like most of Egypt's officer class, Sisi has close ties with the American military. After graduating from Egypt's military academy he served in the infantry corps before working his way up the ranks during the Mubarak era.

Before being appointed head of the armed forces and Defence Minister by Morsi last August, he was director of military intelligence and reconnaissance, a responsibility which he continued to hold in the Supreme Council.

It can be no coincidence that in the past few days the military has ordered the resuscitation of the Mubarak-era security agencies which monitored the Brotherhood's activities and were accused of forced disappearances and the torture of prisoners.

Mubarak threw Brotherhood members wholesale into jail. Sisi's appeal last week to Egyptians to give him a "mandate" against "violence and terrorism" has prompted speculation that he may be tempted to ban the Islamist movement again.

Sisi broke with Morsi as the President embarked on an increasingly authoritarian path, ignoring street protests and calls to reach out to the liberal and secular opposition.

On June 30, the biggest ever anti-Morsi demonstrations marked his first anniversary as President. The next day Morsi was warned the military would impose its own "roadmap" unless he stepped down within 48 hours and yielded to the popular demands. He refused, and on July 3 Sisi suspended the constitution in a move which was popular with a coalition of Islamist and secular opposition forces who backed the appointment of an interim Government. Morsi has been arrested and is being investigated for allegedly conspiring with the Palestinian group Hamas - originally an offshoot of the Brotherhood - to break out of jail during the anti-Mubarak uprising.

Now the mask has fallen. Since Sisi took to a podium wearing dark sunglasses last week to ask "all honourable Egyptians" to take to the streets, the military has bared its teeth. The interim Government, whose members include distinguished former diplomats and technocrats, has been exposed as a fig leaf. After the clashes during which security forces were accused of firing point blank at the mainly Islamist Morsi supporters who have staged a sit-in outside a Cairo mosque for weeks, Vice-President Mohamed ElBaradei decried the "excessive use of force".

Washington too is alarmed by the latest dramatic turn of events. But it is doubtful the Obama Administration can influence the Egyptian leaders' course, even if Congress threatens to cut off the annual US$1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) in aid which mostly goes to the military. Secretary of State John Kerry demanded an independent inquiry into the massacre. But he is treating Egypt as an advanced parliamentary democracy rather than a country in the throes of revolutionary fervour where opposing sides are bent on revenge.

Sisi, who has just displayed his lack of political finesse, is now stuck in a hole of his own making. He has neglected the first rule of thumb when stuck in a hole: stop digging.

- NZ Herald

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