“The armed forces are in charge of Egypt — and they already face a crisis of legitimacy”

PHOTO: Rally for former President Morsi on Monday afternoon in Cairo

We may never know the “truth” of how the killing of 51 people — almost all of them civilians slain by gunfire from security forces — began on Monday.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the injured, and witnesses have claimed that the Army opened fire without provocation. The police and military assert that they were responding to an attack by armed gunmen on the Revolutionary Guards headquarters. An interim explanation, offered by one of the wounded, is that a soldier was shot — by his own forces? by someone in the crowd? — and then tear gas and widespread shooting followed.

While the exact chain of events remains unclear, what we can assess is the political significance of the shooting, which took place only five days after the military deposed President Morsi.


1) For all their rhetoric about a “roadmap” for political transition, the appointing of an interim President and Monday night’s Constitutional declaration, the armed forces are in charge of Egypt;

2) And just like the President they have overthrown, the military is already facing a “crisis of legitimacy”.

In the immediate wake of Monday’s events, the military’s attempt to control the narrative — just as they tried to control the bridges and streets — was notable. State media initially did not report on the shootings in front of the Republican Guards Headquarters; when it did, it emphasised violence against the military. Monday afternoon’s press conference was another military show, with its spokesman assuring reporters that troops had acted with “absolute prudence and sympathy” against “acts of incitement and provocation to instigate acts of violence”.

Just as notable, however, was the silence from another quarter. Throughout the day — as the Muslim Brotherhood gave its version of peaceful civilians cut down by the Army, as the official death toll climbed, as leading political figures withdrew their support — interim President Adli Mansour said not one word. There was only a statement from his office that a judicial committee would be formed to investigate the events.

Finally, Mansour — or rather a statement in his name — made a late-night appearance. The 33 articles of a “Constitutional declaration” set out a process for ratification of the Constitution within five months, followed by Parliamentary elections and a promise of a Presidential ballot.

For all its supposed gravitas, the declaration appears this morning as no more than political lipstick. Its most significant provisions may not be the timetable for supposed Constitutional and electoral transition, but the near-absolute powers given to Mansour — or, rather, the military powers behind him.

Perhaps it is understandable, then, that headlines this morning proclaim, “Egypt’s Army Has More People Than Miami and Answers to No One“. However, these also miss the point.

It is one thing to claim effective control of a country of 83 million people. It is another to be secure in that control.

Monday morning’s confrontation highlighted that this is already in question. Even if “armed gunmen” started the fight, the military’s response — directed not at those gunmen, but at unarmed civilians — appeared as a display of brute force against dissenters.

And this brute force did not convey a message of authority over those opposing them, but rather one of fear of opposition.

That message was reinforced by the revelation that there was a political vacuum throughout the afternoon.

While the Army threatened to disperse the main pro-Morsi rally for former President Morsi at the Rabaa El Adewaya Mosque, they pulled back from doing so.

As these events unfolded, there was silence from the country’s nominal leader, Adly Mansour, and from its de facto rulers, the military.

Meanwhile, political groups and figures were also pulling back, en masse, from the “interim Government”. The Salafist Al Nour Party, who offered support for the coup to depose Morsi, withdrew their backing by noon on Monday.

The Islamist party Al- Gama’a Al Islamiya followed suit.

Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh and Hamdeen Sabahy, both Presidential candidates in 2012, called on Mansour to step down. Mohamed ElBaradei, who took the platform last Wednesday to support the coup, did not — but his general condemnation of violence betrayed nervousness, hours after reports said he would become Vice President.

By evening, there was some rallying of political forces behind the military. The National Salvation Front turned the blame for Monday morning’s deaths on the Muslim Brotherhood; so did the anti-Morsi Tamarod movement.

These statements and maneuvers for position are only stop-gaps, however.

The main issue for the military is not just how they will deal with the immediate problem of Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters returning to the streets — which they have vowed to do today.

Rather, the military, like Morsi, needs to show that it can maintain legitimacy of authority in both legal and political affairs. Just as important is how the leadership will handle an already serious and rapidly escalating economic crisis.

Unlike Mansour pulls a Nasser-like surprise, and transforms into a charismatic leader who can unite the population behind him, it is unlikely that he will succeed where Morsi failed. So the onus is on the military: they either have to come out from behind the scenes and confirm that they are the political leadership, or they face Groundhog-Day repeats of Monday, in which they demonstrate that they are unable to meet what will become constant challenges to their declared “security” and “stability”.