Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi certainly knows how to dress the part. On Wednesday, wearing dark sunglasses, full military dress, and a chest full of medals — despite never having seen combat — Egypt’s defense minister looked every bit the junta leader that his critics say he is. “Come out to give me the mandate and order that I confront violence and potential terrorism,” he declared in a nationally broadcast speech, as he called for Egyptians to take to the streets in a show of support for him and the rump government the country’s generals have propped up. “I’ve never asked you for anything. I’m asking you to show the world. If violence is sought, or terrorism is sought, the military and the police are authorized to confront this.” After weeks of violent clashes, Gen. el-Sissi wasn’t interested in tamping down the unrest or demanding a return to calm; he was stirring Tahrir for his own ends.
He sounds like a man looking to start a fight — or at least for the political cover to begin a crackdown on his opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood. Ever since el-Sissi ousted Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, on July 3, the government has increasingly used the “terrorist” label in association with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian military may desperately need that label to stick — because a threat like terrorism is the perfect legitimizing tool for a government that is being ruled by a military cabal. Having come to power through undemocratic means, the generals know that Egypt’s chaos can make their rule more necessary than ever.
The military’s notion that ousting Morsi would somehow stabilize Egypt has certainly proved false. Nearly 200 people have died in the three weeks since Morsi’s ouster. Many are victims of street violence, like the 12 who died and the 86 who were wounded in clashes Tuesday. The Muslim Brotherhood suffered the deadliest day on July 8, when the military gunned down 51 of their members at a protest. Violence isn’t only in the streets of Cairo; it has spread to the Sinai Peninsula, where unknown militants have killed soldiers and civilians alike. On Tuesday, a bomb exploded outside a police station north of Cairo, killing one person and wounding 19. Although the blast was small, the use of explosives was a dangerous harbinger that the fighting in Egypt may be on the verge of escalating from batons, shotguns, and pistols to something far worse. (In many ways, the bloody confrontations and drift toward violence are a fulfillment of Hosni Mubarak’s warning that this would happen in the wake of his authoritarian rule.)
El-Sissi’s reckless call for protests shreds whatever fig leaf suggested that the interim civilian government was in charge. Of course, there was plenty of reason to doubt that the generals would hand over any meaningful power to the technocrats and liberal secularists who formed the government’s new Cabinet. The military always formed the spine of Mubarak’s regime, and that did not change when the generals became the stewards of Egypt’s democratic transition in 2011.
The military has also generally looked better than the alternative. Since Gamal Nasser, Egyptians have been raised to love their military, which has produced all of Egypt’s modern presidents (with the exception of Morsi). Whereas so much of the state’s apparatus deteriorated and decayed under Mubarak, the military remained one of the only institutions that still functioned; indeed, the military often stepped in to do those things that the civilian government failed to do – pave roads, bake bread, build stadiums, and so on. For the past year, as Egyptians witnessed the full depth of Morsi’s incompetence and divisive style of rule, the popularity of the armed forces only grew. According to a Zogby poll conducted from April to May, the military had approval ratings of an incredible 94 percent.
Even so, el-Sissi is not acting like a man with small ambitions. At only 57, he was one of the youngest generals on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when Morsi appointed him minister of defense and military chief in August 2012. Unlike the other older SCAF brass, el-Sissi is charismatic, enjoys the spotlight — and as he has demonstrated in word and deed — is willing to boldly step into the political arena. People sometimes referred to his predecessor, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, as Mubarak’s lapdog. No one thinks Gen. el-Sissi is on anyone’s leash.
Still, the brash general is playing a dangerous game – and not just because he is threatening a large, battle-tested Islamist organization that has survived decades of abuse and persecution. It is hard to believe that el-Sissi’s provocations sit well with many members of his own officer corps. Egypt’s younger officers have no interest in being detested by the public. While they may once again be heroes, they remember from their brief period in power after Mubarak’s fall how quickly the Egyptian people turned against them. Surely, the officers know that the military’s perceived political neutrality is the biggest explanation for the popularity they enjoyed prior to Morsi’s removal. If the situation descends into greater violence, how much longer will the secular opposition stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the generals?
Indeed, the technocrats and liberals who joined the interim government’s Cabinet at the behest of Egypt’s generals should start asking themselves some hard questions about whether they should remain in these posts. As el-Sissi recklessly raises the probability of even bloodier confrontations, it should be abundantly clear that they have lent their names to a junta, not a genuine democratic transition. It’s a growing disgrace for Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Laureate and the most internationally recognized Egyptian leader, to be a fixture in the military’s faade. While el-Sissi incites a volatile public to take to the streets, ElBaradei takes to Twitter to issue incoherent messages urging nonviolence. (On Wednesday, he tweeted, “I pray to God that we understand that violence doesn’t dress wounds, it opens new ones.” You do not need to be allied with the generals who are flirting with violence to issue bizarre pleas.)
If the military continues to hold onto the political strings behind the scenes or worse — if Gen. el-Sissi trades his uniform for a suit and tie and makes a bid to be Egypt’s next president/pharaoh — what will the last two years have meant? How will what follows not be just a rehash of the military dictatorship that Egyptians rose up against? Because right now the only difference is that the Egyptian people are going out into the street because a general told them to.
William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of “The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.”