CAIRO — Egypt’s top ranking defense official warned Sunday that the military was “ready to intervene to stop the violence” ahead of scheduled mass protests to mark the one-year anniversary this week of Mohammed Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah el Sissi’s comments were the most forceful to date by a senior official of Egypt’s revered military in response to months of unrest and seemed to threaten the possibility of a military coup if protests lead to bloodshed or, as el Sissi described it, “uncontrollable conflict.”
El Sissi gave Morsi and his opponents a week to reconcile.
“There is a state of division in the society, and the continuation of it is a danger to the Egyptian state,” said el-Sissi, who also is the supreme commander of the armed forces and was appointed to his position by Morsi last August. The military has a “patriotic and moral responsibility” to defend Egyptians from violence, he said.
El Sissi issued his comments in simple Egyptian dialect instead of classic, formal Arabic, language that all Egyptians could understand. He sought to appear unbiased and retain the military’s place as the national voice of the people, but suggested the onus was on Morsi to repair the political divisions.
Both sides must reach a “genuine reconciliation,” el Sissi said.
Morsi met with el Sissi afterwards. In a statement, Morsi’s office said the president and defense chief discussed the "domestic scene and the government’s efforts to maintain the security of the nation and the safety of its citizens."
Many Egyptians have been in a state of near panic for the past several days over what will happen during and after the protests leading up to Saturday’s anniversary. Some are calling for Morsi to step down, complaining that Morsi has presided over an unprecedented decline in the economy, as well as political and social turmoil. But the disorganized and fractured opposition has offered no alternative to Morsi and the demonstrations it’s scheduled for Thursday and Saturday carry no clear agenda, other than change.
During the past two weeks, Morsi has pushed to shore up support by offering billions in government spending to the restive Sinai and pay raises for government workers. In what appeared to be an appeal to Islamist militants, he named as governor of the Luxor governate, which is heavily dependent on tourism, a member of the organization that was suspected of orchestrating the 1997 attacks on tourists that killed 57.
Countering Morsi’s critics, thousands of Morsi’s backers demonstrated last week. Speakers told the supporters it was their duty as Muslims to defend the president – an admonition that could also lead to violence. On Sunday, four Shiite Muslims were killed by followers of the conservative Salafi strain of Sunni Islam for practicing their rituals in public, according to news accounts. There are few Shiites in Egypt. Salifists consider them to be heretics.
Morsi also continues to face challenges from the country’s judiciary. On Sunday, a court that ruled that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood illegally conspired with Hamas, Hezbollah and local militants to storm a prison in 2011 and free 34 Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi. What the legal ramifications meant for Morsi remained unclear.
The military controlled Egypt from February 2011, when former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak stepped down amid widespread protests, and Morsi’s inauguration last year, and officials have said it did not want the task of ruling again, especially given Egypt’s intractable problems. But as Morsi’s approval ratings have fallen and conditions in the country have worsed, some Egyptians want them to take control again.
Just a week ago Morsi was boasting about the relationship between his civilian government and the military, denying any disputes.
Referring to the planned protests, Morsi told al Akhbar newspaper: "These attempts are doomed to failure because we have succeeded in establishing a civilian-military relationship consistent with nascent Egyptian democracy.”
On Saturday, el Sissi told a military graduation ceremony that the military will remain neutral in any clashes between Morsi supporters and detractors, according to the al Ahram newspaper. "The men of the armed forces don’t gamble with the present or the future of the nation," the newspaper quoted el Sissi as saying. The military, he said, "are not biased to a certain faction against the other but their only bias is to the Egyptian people with all its sects and factions."
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef