CAIRO — Egypt’s tense political situation appeared likely to worsen as the head of the country’s military called Wednesday for Egyptians to demonstrate Friday against terrorism, in what many feared was a green light for violence against supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi.
Hours after the speech by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose titles include deputy prime minister, defense minister and the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and who is clearly Egypt’s strongman, the Obama administration took its first punitive steps against the Egyptian military, announcing that it had delayed the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt’s air force.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the United States no longer believes it is “appropriate to move forward with the delivery,” though he did not cite a specific reason for the delay. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered the news personally to el-Sissi, Little said.
El-Sissi told a military graduation ceremony in Alexandria that a public outpouring on Friday would give the army a mandate to fight terrorists and combat violence. The military recently has used “terrorists” and “violence” to describe Morsi supporters and their activities.
Thousands of Morsi supporters have been demonstrating for Morsi’s return to office since he was toppled July 3, including staging a sit-in near the headquarters of the Republican Guard, the elite military unit that many Morsi partisans believe is holding the deposed president. With so many Morsi supporters on the street, there are fears that the mandate el-Sissi is seeking is one that would allow the military to confront the protesters.
Gunfire from the military killed more than 50 Morsi supporters outside the Republican Guard headquarters on July 8, and at least 100 people have died since in violence.
El-Sissi’s speech was immediately seconded by a spokesman for the country’s civilian president, Adly Mansour, according to state media, which quoted Ahmed al Meslemani as saying that “Egypt will not be a second Syria, and those who push in that direction are traitors.”
“I’ve never asked you for anything, but I want you to show the world that Egyptians have a free will,” said el-Sissi.
The speech drew a variety of reactions, demonstrating how polarized Egypt has become in the weeks since Morsi was forced from office. Within hours of his speech, a car exploded in the northern Sinai city of Arish, a hotbed of Islamists, killing two soldiers and three militants.
Many Egyptians have become increasingly frustrated with pro-Morsi demonstrations, which have snarled traffic, led to bursts of violence, and created an atmosphere of uncertainty, and they voiced support for el-Sissi’s announcement.
Analysts here also interpreted the speech as an effort by el-Sissi to demonstrate that the military’s toppling of Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, was a response to popular sentiment and not a coup d’etat.
“In normal circumstances there is no need for a mandate from the people,” said political analyst Diaa Rashwan. But “if they take any action without the people’s mandate, then that will prove that it is a coup.”
The sit-in staged by Morsi supporters has become “a national security issue which is threatening all state institutions,” said Eman el-Mahdy, a spokeswoman for Tamarod, one of the groups that backed el-Sissi’s move against Morsi. She said that if people turn out to support the military, “no one will” call the military’s action against Morsi a coup.
Ahmed Maher, the head of the April 6 Youth Movement, which was instrumental in the demonstrations that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak but was opposed to the way the military removed Morsi, said he was befuddled by why the military needs a public mandate to do its job.
The “army doesn’t need a mandate to counter terrorism unless they are aiming for something big,” Maher said. “Their role is to secure the country.”
In his speech, el-Sissi also defended removing Morsi. He said the deposed president went back on promises of national reconciliation and instead told him he intended to give a defiant speech.
“We didn’t betray; we gave advice and offered assistance,” el-Sissi said, adding that he had warned the president that Morsi’s religious supporters “would eventually misunderstand Egyptians who oppose them and will turn the situation into a struggle for God."
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive Islamist organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency, vowed to keep protesting and said the military was trying to stoke violence.
El-Sissi’s speech “is a call for confrontation if it is not a call for a civil war,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el Haddad said. “We are prepared to die.”
Either way, the nation remained anxious about what would happen Friday, when both pro- and anti-Morsi partisans have scheduled demonstrations.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Youssef reported from Washington. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef