Declaring that ongoing street protests could lead to the “collapse of the state,” Egypt’s top military general warned Tuesday that if opponents of President Mohammed Morsi continue to paralyze the country through demonstrations, the military might have to intervene to defend the government.
It was the first time that Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the commander of Egypt’s military forces and the country’s defense minister, had commented publicly on the unrest that in six days has left at least 60 dead across the country. He did not specify what might trigger wider military intervention, what that intervention might look like, or whom he blamed for the unrest.
But he defended Morsi’s imposition over the weekend of emergency rule in three provinces after rioting broke out over a court ruling in a controversial criminal case, and he said the army’s deployment in those provinces “only aims to protect the vital and strategic goals of the state.”
The protests, el-Sissi said in a speech to military cadets that was distributed as a statement, jeopardized everyone.
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"The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations," el-Sissi said.
El-Sissi’s remarks did not immediately seem to discourage expressions of dissent in the three provinces where Morsi also had ordered a 9 p.m. curfew for 30 days. In Suez, large demonstrations formed to mark the start of the curfew. In Port Said, where weekend violence claimed as many as 50 lives, residents launched fireworks in a spirited, festive form of disobedience. And a state news station showed young men in Ismailiya playing soccer in the streets Tuesday night.
In Cairo, which is not under curfew, protesters clashed with security forces, though for the first time in six days of violence no one died.
Just who could stop frustrated Egyptians from taking to the streets was unclear. The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, is splintered and has no more control over the protesters than do the police forces, who’ve countered rock-throwing demonstrators with tear gas and live fire.
Despite el-Sissi’s warning, soldiers deployed in front of government buildings Tuesday night did not use their newly acquired powers to arrest civilians as curfew breakers.
Egypt is currently facing a myriad of problems stemming largely from the persistent instability that now defines the nation, from a failing economy to political divisions. Violent protests have erupted almost daily for the past two months, starting in late November when Morsi exempted his decisions from court review and culminating in this past weekend’s violence, triggered when a Port Said court sentenced 21 soccer fans to death for their role in a Feb. 1 stampede at a soccer game that left 74 dead.
The military, while credited with toppling deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak two years ago, has shown itself unwilling to pressure Morsi during the last two months. El-Sissi told the cadets that the military is a non-political institution dedicated to protecting the state.
“The army is for all Egyptians of all sects and affiliations,” el-Sissi said.
National Salvation Front spokesman Hussein Abdel Ghany said the group is urging protesters to voice their objections to the Morsi government peacefully. And he said the group hoped the military would maintain a neutral position on the conflict.
“We are sure our army and Gen. el-Sissi are going to continue to represent the heritage” of the Egyptian Army, “which aspires only to help people, not just a regime or dictator,” Ghany said.
Ghany suggested that the military, which many believe is Egypt’s last remaining power broker, lead talks between Morsi’s opponents and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist society through which Morsi rose to prominence.
“I think what we need is to see is a neutral stand from our army to promote political talks because the division is now between the revolution camp and the camp of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, which have abandoned our revolution goals,” Ghany said. “We will fulfill our revolution goals and honor our martyrs.”
Morsi for his part went ahead Tuesday with a prearranged trip to Germany, choosing not to remain behind to address the latest crisis.
Early Wednesday, however, his office issued a statement defending the declaration of emergency law in the three provinces. The statement cited both the Egyptian constitution and an international treaty as supporting the declaration.
The statement also said that while the Egyptian military had been granted the authority to arrest civilians, no one arrested would be tried in a military court – a sore point under the previous military government, when hundreds of civilians were referred to military courts for participating in protests.
El-Sissi, 58, is a relatively unknown quantity here in a powerful but secretive army. Appointed by Morsi in August to replace his longstanding predecessor, Mohammed Tantawi, el-Sissi is considered the face of a younger generation of military commanders, not as beholden to military practices under Mubarak.
His deputy, Gen. Mohamed el Assar, now leads the military’s relations with the United States.
The Egyptian military not only leads defense matters but controls a business empire of its own. During Mubarak’s rule, it was seen as a powerful behind-the-scenes player in the government. The military’s longtime autonomy has been preserved under Morsi, who is the first Egyptian president to have never served in the military. Under the new constitution, approved in December, the Parliament cannot review its budget, and the military holds its own trials.
For decades, the Egyptian military was regarded as the nation’s pride, one of the few places where a poor Egyptian man could rise to the nation’s highest ranks, as did every president before Morsi.
But its 18-month tenure as the governing authority between Mubarak’s and Morsi’s presidencies tarnished its image and its place in Egyptian hearts and minds. But in the face of any alternative, it is still considered the ultimate broker over state matters.
RAW VIDEO: Street Clashes in Egypt as Deadly Unrest Continues