A Cairo plaza that was once the crucible of a revolt against tyranny was transformed into a plaything of Egypt’s conservative military yesterday, as tens of thousands of people flocked into Tahrir Square to show their support for an expected army operation to crush the Muslim Brotherhood.
Amid the buzz of Apache helicopters swooping low, huge numbers began filling the square in response to a call by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the country’s top military commander.
The general, who is perhaps the key power behind the civilian throne of interim President Adli Mansour, startled observers by calling for nationwide rallies in order to grant his troops a “mandate” to tackle “terrorism”.
At least two people were killed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after demonstrators heeded Sisi’s call, raising fears of more bloody confrontations over the weekend.
Egypt’s military has made no mention of the Brotherhood by name. Yet Sisi’s comments were widely understood to be a grave warning to the Islamist group.
Its leaders – who have implacably rejected the popular coup which ousted the Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi earlier this month – held their own rallies across the country yesterday. The military has said the group has until today to sign up to the ongoing transitional process.
Yesterday the stakes were raised when a court ordered the detention of Mr Morsi over a series of allegations including charges of murder.
The investigation centres around a prison break shortly after the January 2011 revolt in which Mr Morsi and other inmates escaped. Prosecutors allege that the former President collaborated with the Palestinian militant group Hamas during the breakout, in which 14 guards were killed.
The toppled President is currently being held at an unknown location. But any legal measures would further stoke tensions. Tahrir Square, the scene of numerous clashes with the military police and central security forces (CSF) over the past two and a half years, yesterday emerged as a platform for Egypt’s so-called ‘deep state’ – the stubbornly entrenched network comprising the army, security apparatus and political and business interests.
Several police riot vans were parked inside the square, while there were also reports of officers checking the ID cards of protesters entering the rally. “The ruination of Tahrir as a revolutionary space is complete,” local film-maker, Omar Robert Hamilton, said on Twitter.
The face of Gen Sisi, the former military intelligence chief who is now riding a crest of widespread popularity, was everywhere. Street hawkers sold posters of the commander for 20p a time, while others carried banners of him alongside Gamal Abdel Nasser, the 1960s autocrat who won the hearts of Egyptians through his defiance of Britain’s colonial ambitions and his own populist political agenda.
Adil el-Mansi, a 50-year-old teacher who was wearing a picture of the general around his neck, told The Independent that yesterday was his first ever protest in Tahrir Square. “I came for the security of Egypt,” he said. “I am against the terrorists.”
Spurred on by the military, Egypt’s media has successfully conflated the Muslim Brotherhood with an amorphous “terrorist” threat. The front page of yesterday’s Al Masry Al Youm, a leading private newspaper, declared that ‘Today, terrorism is in the grip of the revolution’.
Other liberal and secular groups have not openly questioned Gen Sisi’s position. “All the remnants of the old regime are now celebrating as if they have had a new baby after waiting for many years,” said Egyptian journalist Dina Samak, who added “it’s not going to last long, because quite simply, nothing being promised to the people will be delivered.”