El-Sissi will not be deterred
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Analysis

El-Sissi will not be deterred

The heavy use of force by Egyptian police has reignited Muslim Brotherhood protests and brought criticism at home and abroad. But the strongman is unmoved, and much of Egypt is with him

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Egyptian soldiers walk among the smoldering remains of the largest protest camp of supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, which was cleared by security forces, in the district of Nasser City in Cairo on Thursday. (photo credit: AP/Ahmed Gomaa)
Egyptian soldiers walk among the smoldering remains of the largest protest camp of supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, which was cleared by security forces, in the district of Nasser City in Cairo on Thursday. (photo credit: AP/Ahmed Gomaa)

It is still too early to judge whether Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s decision to forcefully remove the Muslim Brotherhood protesters from Cairo’s squares was the right one.

For weeks, Egyptian security forces successfully contained the Muslim Brotherhood’s demonstrations. Although occasional violent incidents resulted in the deaths of nearly 30 people in total, the number of protesters gathering in support of the Brotherhood had declined steadily since late June.

While the first protests in Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda square drew millions of demonstrators, the numbers had dropped to several tens of thousands by earlier this week. The military had successfully drained the enthusiasm from the Brotherhood’s protests against the revolution/coup.

By ordering troops to open fire on the protesters on Wednesday morning, el-Sissi recharged the opposition’s energy. Although the soldiers managed to evacuate al-Nahda and even Rabaa al-Adawiya, the larger square, within hours, the death toll reached at least 525 and thousands were injured.

The military claims that armed Muslim Brotherhood supporters opened fire on the soldiers, killing close to 50 and injuring dozens more. Each side recruited the television channel that supports its agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood was backed by Qatar’s al-Jazeera, which broadcast pictures of corpses and injured protesters in an endless loop, while al-Arabiya, which is funded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which support the Egyptian military, screened a video of supposed Muslim Brotherhood activists wearing masks and firing at unseen targets.

In this photo from April 2013, Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reviews honor guards during an arrival ceremony for his US counterpart at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jim Watson, Pool, File)
In this photo from April 2013, Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reviews honor guards during an arrival ceremony for his US counterpart at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jim Watson, Pool, File)

As expected, the bloodshed was condemned by prominent figures in the Arab world and by various political parties in Egypt. Leaders such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh — former Egyptian presidential candidate, and a former Muslim Brotherhood activist in his more distant past — who strongly opposed Mohammed Morsi while he was president, criticized the army and their excessive use of violence. Representatives of the extremist al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya organization, the al-Wasat Party and countries such as Qatar, Turkey and Iran, condemned the Egyptian military as well. And to top it all, Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, who was one of the first to stand by the military when protests against Morsi began on June 30, submitted his resignation.

The war for Egypt’s future has returned to international headlines and the Muslim Brotherhood is now demanding that el-Sissi be removed from power in order to restore peace. It is highly unlikely, though, that this will happen any time soon. Right now, Egypt is headed towards the unknown.

There is little chance of the Muslim Brotherhood ending their protests any time soon, and the military has no intention of forgoing its venerated commander, el-Sissi. But as further confrontation looms, the Muslim Brotherhood is at a disadvantage. It has the support of less than half of the Egyptian population, and it must contend with a powerful army, led by revered officers, that enjoys majority backing. The odds are not in its favor. The Brotherhood will be able to continue to disrupt and interfere with developments in Egypt, but there is currently no third revolution or coup on the horizon.

Still, these events are occurring in the new Middle East, where it is nearly impossible to foresee what tomorrow will bring. Back on January 26, 2011, the day after the protests against Hosni Mubarak began, it was nearly impossible to predict that he would be overthrown in less than three weeks.

El-Sissi’s violent action against the protesters was no coincidence. It is simply the next phase of the strategy that the army has employed over the past six weeks, both for handling the internal Egyptian front and for its activity in Sinai and against Hamas. The Egyptian chief of staff seems to be following a policy of zero tolerance against anyone who attempts to undermine the sovereignty of the new regime or Egypt’s national security. The days of Mubarak’s trial-and-error policies and mixed messages are over.

The army has entered a new era of all-out war against Islamic forces in Sinai and against the tunnels connecting the peninsula to Gaza, while at the same time, it is exerting force against the Muslim Brotherhood inside Egypt. The problem is that there are limits to the force and violence that can be applied, as the situation in Syria underlines. The Syrian army has been unable to suppress the opposition against Bashar Assad even as the death toll exceeds 100,000. Unlike in Syria, though, large portions of the Egyptian population support the military’s harsh policies.

Even as violence continues throughout Egypt, the army continues its efforts to destroy Jihadist headquarters in Sinai. Egyptian armed forces attack from the air and the ground and have managed to hit dozens of targets in the last week alone. The problem is that the number of armed activists that identify with al-Qaeda’s ideology is estimated at 3,000. It will be a long time before the Egyptian army will be able to declare victory in Sinai. From the Israeli perspective, this means that the rockets fired at Eilat this week will not be the last.

It would be best for Israel if el-Sissi’s army was able to maintain order in Egypt without more violent clashes that may undermine its authority. Jerusalem sees el-Sissi as an ally, which is why it is so difficult for Israel to swallow the Americans’ onslaught against the Egyptian army, their decision to cancel joint military maneuvers, and their threats to halt foreign aid to Egypt. If Washington has decided to take a stance against el-Sissi and his people, Israel can only hope that it has come up with a better alternative. So far, there is no such alternative anywhere in sight.

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