Army deadline heightens Egypt's divisions

03 July 2013

Military ultimatum to President Mursi could have a radicalising effect on Islamist groups in Egypt

Time is running out for Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi if he is to meet the 48-hour deadline imposed by the army to “heed the will of the people” and reach some form of agreement with opposition groups.

However, whether or not Mursi steps down and the Muslim Brotherhood does reach some compromise agreement, the army’s recent interference is likely to only strengthen divisions between Islamist and secular groups.

The army’s stance could end up radicalising certain sections of Egyptian society, leading to increased conflict and less desire to reach a compromise over how Egypt should be ruled.

The language used by various parties has become increasingly fiery and aggressive since anti-government protestors began their demonstrations on June 30. On Tuesday night, Mursi publicly defied the army’s ultimatum on national TV. He said he is prepared to fight to the bitter end to protect his “legitimate” claim to power, stating “[I am] prepared to sacrifice my blood”.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party also issued a statement criticising the army’s involvement. “The role of the army, in all democratic states, is to protect the borders, face up to external threats, and maintain security. It does not interfere in the political scene – not even as an arbitrator, nor mediator,” it said.

The army responded in kind. It posted on its Facebook page that it was prepared to “sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool”.

Army intervention

Initially the army’s intervention, when it gave Morsi his 48-hour ultimatum, was seemingly welcomed by the crowds of cheering anti-government protesters gathered in Tahrir Square. Yet, in the long term, the army’s decision could be misplaced and lead to more violence and deepening political divisions throughout Egyptian society.

Although the army has stated it is not interested in taking control of Egypt, it is the perception of the army’s involvement that will matter. Any degree of military intervention into a democratically-elected government is likely to lead to the hardening of divisions between Islamist groups and secular opposition groups.

“The military will feel compelled to step in and do something more decisive [in the event of increased violence] and this could be interpreted by Islamist groups as a secular military power removing a democratically-elected Islamist civilian government,” says Henry Smith, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at London-headquartered risk management firm Control Risks.

This will have a huge impact in radicalising certain Islamist groups within Egypt, and inevitably fuelling further violence and protests.

In the event of military intervention, Western governments will have play it carefully. “It puts pressure on the West. If Western governments are seen to back the opposition they could be seen as being complicit in pushing Islamists out, and therefore become a target,” he says.

There are a number of potential different scenarios that could evolve over the next few weeks. Mursi could be removed and a coalition government will be formed, or he could retain his role for a temporary period before a coalition government is formed and/or strict deadlines for presidential and parliamentary elections are set.

There is much to speculate on, but what is clear since protests began on 30 June is that the violence on the streets will get worse. The number of people killed at both pro and anti-Morsi rallies is rising every day and incidents such as Sunday’s attack on Cairo’s Muslim Brotherhood headquarters are likely to increase. Regardless of events over the next few days, it is unlikely to do much to heal the bitter divide in Egyptian society.

“Whatever happens, the long-term impact on the security environment is going to be inherently detrimental no matter what resolution is reached,” says Smith.

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