El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

General El-Sisi has called on “honorable Egyptians” to hold massive protests on Friday to give him a popular mandate in the latest “war on terrorism.” This escalation in the conflict between pro- and anti-Morsi groups is a political miscalculation that will backfire on El-Sisi and on Egypt.

When ousted president Morsi was in power, his Muslim Brotherhood (“MB”) group would regularly call for counter-demonstrations against his opponents who were camping out in Tahrir and elsewhere. The opposing camps would meet, inevitably leading to violence and a climbing death toll. Most Egyptians rightly criticized the MB for “placing the matches near the fuel.” Yet, many of those same Egyptians are today cheering for El-Sisi’s repetition of the MB’s mistake.

When the military ousted Morsi, it was in response to millions of Egyptians protesting Morsi’s undemocratic practices and managerial incompetence during his first year in office. Although Morsi was democratically elected, he had worked to systematically dismantle all democratic elements in the state, pack all levels of government exclusively with MB members and supporters, ignore his campaign promises, and place himself above the constitution and the rule of law.

For all intents and purposes, Morsi’s actions rendered unusable the legal mechanisms by which citizens can hold their national leaders accountable in between elections. That left Egyptians with no path towards change other than street demonstrations. And when Morsi responded by loudly declaring that he will defend his presidency “with [his] blood,” and his supporters started amassing in Cairo, the military had no choice but to intervene to prevent a potential bloodbath. That was a legitimate response to the people’s will, to the lack of legal options, and to the imminent danger of the breakout of civil war.

Violence has broken out during the three weeks since Morsi’s ouster, mostly in the lawless Sinai governorate and at a few pro-Morsi sit-ins. Dozens have been killed and a few thousand hurt. But the million or so pro-Morsi demonstrators have remained mostly peaceful. MB leaders and other “Islamists” continue to egg them on, believing that large sit-ins will eventually bring back the MB regime. They have failed to recognize that all they can accomplish is run out the general population’s patience with them and provide an easy excuse for extremists to ratchet up their attacks against the state.

El-Sisi is gambling on receiving another popular mandate through demonstrations, this time to crack down on “violence and terrorism.” This is a dangerous miscalculation for a simple reason: unlike the case of holding the president accountable, there are clear and active laws governing the state’s response to violence. The security forces will find wide support for cracking down on the few armed protesters in Cairo. And the military will be cheered as a national hero if it launches a major campaign to rid Sinai of its festering terrorism camps and pockets of violence. The military can even be called to help secure Cairo against extremist elements by a simple declaration of a state of emergency by the Interim President, Judge Adly Mansour.

El-Sisi’s asking for popular demonstrations prior to taking action implies one thing: he intends to use the military in an extra-judicial crackdown on peaceful protests. That is the only objective for which he has no legal or political cover.

International political entities and donors are already skeptical about the military’s intentions in Egypt. The U.S. has been threatening to withhold over $1B in aid to the Egyptian military. And the IMF has still not approved its $4.8B loan to Egypt, desperately needed to kickstart the economy. However, most international bodies gave El-Sisi the benefit of the doubt in ousting Morsi because of the events that led up to it.

El-Sisi is seeking a similar popular mandate and additional leeway from international observers. He may well receive the former but almost certainly not the latter.

Two developments are likely to happen over the next few days. First, massive pro-military demonstrations will clash with pro-Morsi crowds, potentially leading to widespread bloodshed. And second, the military and security forces will launch an iron fisted campaign to snuff out public support for the MB, perhaps killing hundreds and arresting tens of thousands, many of whom will disappear into military jails, forcing the remaining sympathizers underground.

If El-Sisi’s intention is, as he has stated, to re-establish the rule of law and stability to the nation, this plan will backfire. If his intention is to eradicate opposition, he may succeed in the short term, but will soon have to repeat his actions to deal with the next wave of opposition, likely by the secular youth who still remember the heavy handed rule of the military after Mubarak’s ouster.

In either case, Egypt is about to pay a heavy price for the miscalculations of one very powerful man.

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