A call by Egypt’s all-powerful army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sissi for mass demonstrations on Friday has sparked fears of increasing bloodshed in the divided country.
Already, more than 100 people have died as violence has swept across the country in the wake of the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi earlier this month. And as the interim government plows forward with cabinet appointments and constitutional amendments, fighting continues to rage unabated. At least two bomb attacks have been aimed at security forces since Morsi’s overthrow on July 3 and earlier this week, supporters and opponents of Morsi fought deadly battles in the streets.
"I urge the people to take to the streets this coming Friday to prove their will and give me, the army and police, a mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism," Al Sissi said during his televised address Wednesday, during which he wore dark sunglasses and full military garb.
Some Egyptians support Al Sissi’s call for Friday demonstrations, saying that the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist sympathizers have repeatedly instigated violence.
But others see the call by Al Sissi as incitement to more trouble and instability.
“Al Sissi is fueling a war,” said Ibrahim Ahmad, a student at the American University in Cairo who has been taking part in the pro-Morsi sit-in near Rabaa mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City. “This is an indication that the army is losing control on the ground. This is not a war against terrorism. This is a war against us.”
Essam El-Erian, deputy chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood's political wing, vowed Al Sissi’s words would not quell protests demanding the return of democratically elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to power. "Your threat will not stop the millions from continuing to gather,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
With the deteriorating political situation in Egypt, the U.S. Department of Defense announced on Wednesday that President Obama would delay the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters in Washington, D.C. that now is not the appropriate time to deliver fighter jets to the Egyptian army.
In the streets of Cairo, the anxiety was palatable on Wednesday afternoon. Some whispered about a coming curfew, others speculated the army would forcibly clear out the Islamist protest around Rabaa Mosque, and crush the Muslim Brotherhood.
Whatever plans the military might have for Friday, observers cautioned that the likelihood of bloodshed is high.
“Al Sissi hopes to give the impression that strong-arm tactics instituted ostensibly to meet rising violence have broad popular support,” Cairo-based analyst Elijah Zarwan told the Daily Beast. “Any violence Friday would underline that point. So long as ‘winner takes all’ remains the operative principle in Egyptian politics, this will not end well."
One young Egyptian man, who asked not to be named in fear of being targeted for his political beliefs, told The Daily Beast that Al Sissi’s speech was a preemptive move to counter any Brotherhood plots.
“The army definitely learned their lesson not to engage in any violence,” he said. “So to call for this now means they have intelligence that the Muslim Brotherhood was going to move things to more violent and escalated actions.”
Many Egyptians who took to the streets on June 30 against the former Islamist president cite terrorism and militancy in the Sinai as evidence of trouble instigated by Morsi-sympathizing Islamist groups. Directly following Al Sissi’s speech, an Egyptian soldier was killed in the Sinai desert, adding to a long list of now daily militant attacks on soldiers and security forces in the restive desert peninsula.
The anti-Morsi group known as Tamarod, which was instrumental in overthrowing the president, voiced its support of the military in a statement on its official Facebook page. "We call on all the Egyptian people to gather in all the squares next Friday to call for the trial of Mohamed Morsi, support the Egyptian armed forces in the coming war against terrorism and cleansing the land of Egypt,” it read.
In response to Al Sissi’s call to protest, the Anti-Coup Alliance, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, released a statement to press on Wednesday, detailing what they said would be 35 demonstrations leaving from mosques around Cairo and Giza governorates following Friday’s noon prayer. The protesters will be marching under the slogan “bringing down the coup.”