April 18, 2014

Editorial: Sisi’s Ultimatums

File photo: Tens of thousands have been protesting against the coup near Rabaa El Adaweya mosque since June 28 (Photo by Hassan Ibrahim).

BY RANIA AL MALKY Cairo – Yesterday Egypt’s de facto leader Army Chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi waged war against “possible terrorism” in the second 48-hour ultimatum he gives the Muslim Brotherhood in a month.

So much for the charade of civilian leadership when Sisi side-steps the interim president, prime minister, his deputies and cabinet (all unelected) and calls Egyptians into the streets to give the military a “mandate” to confront weeks of violence, in an ill-begotten statement Wednesday seen by many as a prelude to a massacre of pro-Morsi supporters who have maintained a sit-in since June 28.

A military official told Reuters that the army had given Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood a Saturday deadline to end its resistance and join a military-set road map to fresh elections, signaling a turning point in the confrontation, just as it vowed in a statement dubbed “Last Chance” yesterday to change its strategy in dealing with violence and “black terrorism”.  

Last chance before what exactly, many are asking. How does the army define “terrorism”, how does it distinguish it from “possible terrorism” and on what legal basis will it deal with the latter? Besides, why would Egypt’s military leader ask for a mandate to protect the country from violence and terrorism, when the army has been doing just that in Sinai for months? Isn’t this it’s national duty and constitutional role?

With his previous dramatic July 1 ultimatum and the swift coup removing Egypt’s first democratically-elected civilian president on July 3, Sisi launched Egypt into what will likely become a protracted spiral of state-sponsored violence.

In three short weeks, over 200 people have been killed, mostly supporters of the deposed President Morsi in an unjustified use of excessive force by the army against  peaceful protesters outside the Republican Guard Club in Cairo, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, where protesters believe Morsi is held incommunicado until today.

The coup and subsequent crackdown as well as the extra-legal arrest of hundreds of MB members and the freezing of their assets has divided families, exacerbated terrorist acts in the fragile North Sinai region and led to the random targeting of Christians who supported the Tamarod-Rebel campaign, by enraged individuals whose indignation at being denied the results of free and fair elections reflecting their choice merely a year after Morsi took office.

By far the worst outcome of the political stand-off between the MB and their opponents in the army, security apparatus, judiciary and political parties has been the emergence of a Goebelles-style propaganda industry spearheaded and bankrolled by Mubarak-era media tycoons and entirely co-opted by the state media’s official line.

In a carefully orchestrated, meticulously choreographed and coordinated media campaign to vilify the army’s opponents, Islamist or not, privately-owned media channels and newspapers have been instrumental in creating and propagating a false narrative of what is happening in Egypt today.

In a New York Times story published as early as July 6, a reporter at one newspaper says that her editor had given his staff “explicit instructions not to report on pro-Morsi demonstrations and to make sure that articles indicated that the perpetrators of violence were always Islamists.” Neutral, professional and accurate foreign news outlets too have been accused of publishing “misinformation” in a throwback to the exact same claims made in January 2011 that led to an unprecedented wave of xenophobia and citizens arrests of foreigners. Ironically, many of Egypt’s educated, liberal, secular twitterati have adopted the same line.

As Hitler wrote in “Mein Kampf”, “Propaganda tries to force a doctrine on the whole people… Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea” – a strategy that ultimately led to the gas chambers and concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Not unlike his Nazi counterpart and military dictators closer to home like Nasser, Sisi’s propaganda campaigns are creating an atmosphere tolerant of violence against Islamists, encouraging passivity and acceptance of the impending measures against them, as these appear to depict the government as stepping in and “restoring order”, at the same time cultivating a facade of “popular will and support” through calls for mass street protests.

As the current leadership U-turned on Morsi’s anti-Bashar Al Assad strategy, the hate campaigns have targeted Syrian refugees in Egypt fleeing their own military-led civil war. HRW has reported that Egyptian police had arrested 72 Syrian men and nine boys on July 19 and 20 alone, including registered asylum seekers and at least nine with valid visas or residence permits. At least 14 were threatened with deportation.

Little wonder that much of the “general public” is unaware of basic facts. Many cannot conceive of the notion that Egyptian army soldiers would kill their “brothers” in cold blood and with no provocation and have thus readily accepted the quantum shift in the depiction of the MB as political opponents to the MB as terrorists.

And hence in the spirit of “revolution” and a false perception that June 30 corrected the erroneous path adopted post-January 25, when in fact it marked the triumph of the counterrevolution, many are misguidedly embracing Sisi’s ominous call to give his soldiers the cover to stage yet another massacre to add to a shameful record manifested in Maspero in October 2011 and dates back decades to Nasser’s reign of terror in the 1950s and 1960s. The uncanny resemblance between the seismic events of 1954 and 2013 (complete with supporting TV series, music and press) reinforces my conviction that military juntas don’t negotiate but annihilate and that they never miraculously metamorphose into democracies.

While the MB’s role in raising the potential for violent confrontation between Egyptians is undeniable, adamantly refusing to budge from their essential demand to reinstate Morsi as a precondition to any negotiation, the group’s stance is a legally justified expression of political dissent against the toppling of Morsi’s democratic legitimacy.

It has also become abundantly clear that MBs’ so-called militias are a figment of someone’s twisted imagination. The balance of real power between the two sides of the political divide is lopsided, even unfit for comparison: Army and police with their advanced weapons, their propaganda machines and networks of thugs, versus hundreds of thousands of mostly unarmed protesters with only a fraction carrying birdshot rifles, homemade handguns, wooden clubs and stones to protect themselves from the ever-present fear of mob attacks invigorated by the selective presence of a police force always ready to look the other way when they’re attacked.

As one protester from Rabaa Al Adaweya told me, “We will never accept the humiliation of the past, the torture and mutilations of the state security apparatus. If they want to kill us for fighting for our right to live with dignity, so be it.”

For Sisi’s “possible terrorists” the fight is not about Morsi, it’s personal.

So much for the ultimatum.

Rania Al Malky is the publisher of The Egypt Monocle.

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