Post-coup Egypt gripped by nationalist fervor

Oct 07, 2013, 4:59 PM EDT
Smoke rises from a security headquarters building in the southern Sinai town of el-Tor, Egypt, after a car bombing there on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013.
(AP Photo)

CAIRO (AP) — While riots turned the neighborhoods of Cairo into deadly battlegrounds this weekend, Egypt's most powerful man — the head of the armed forces — enjoyed a star-studded show.

In a sports stadium, celebrities and pop singers lavished praise on the military in a televised extravaganza complete with dancers and an elaborate fireworks display.

The scene crystalized Egypt's situation since the July 3 coup that ousted the country's first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, and ended a year of rule by Islamists.

The new leadership has seemingly taken a two-pronged approach to building the future: On one hand, it pumps up a pro-military, nationalist fervor, while on the other it tries to crush Morsi's Islamist supporters and his Muslim Brotherhood. So far, the result has led to more turmoil.

The scenario raises doubts about whether Egypt can progress toward the democracy that those who supported Morsi's ouster say they want to achieve — or whether the leaders can tackle pressing issues like the damaged economy. Repeated bouts of violence since July have only worsened the slump in the vital tourism industry, amid high unemployment, low productivity and steep price increases.

"It is a cycle of violence at the moment from which there is no way out in the near term," said Michael W. Hanna, a Middle East expert from New York's Century Foundation.

"Where Egypt is now is where Egypt will be for a long time," he said.

A national holiday on Sunday commemorating the 1973 Mideast war was an occasion for authorities to further stoke the fervor for the military, which media and government officials have elevated to near-celestial status in their rhetoric.

A personality cult has grown around the army chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who pushed out Morsi. Calls for el-Sissi to run for president next year are gaining momentum.

The Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, used the occasion to accelerate its nationwide protests of the military. The result was mayhem, as demonstrators clashed with security forces and el-Sissi's supporters, leaving at least 51 people dead and more than 200 injured. The latest toll adds to more than 1,000 Morsi supporters killed by security forces since the coup.

The ongoing crackdown has also included the detention of at least 2,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including most of its leaders, and a court order outlawing the group. The country is back under emergency laws that give police expanded arrest powers, and many cities, including Cairo, have been under curfew since mid-August.

The military-backed government appears uninterested in negotiating a way out of the crisis. It promises to restore order and put the country back on a democratic path by pushing ahead with a road map that will rewrite the constitution promulgated under Morsi and lead to parliamentary and presidential elections early next year.

The Brotherhood has shunned talks, for now at least, demanding that Morsi be reinstated and pursuing a policy of confrontation: It has sent his supporters, some of them armed, into the streets for protests that security forces have used deadly force to crush. Its losses enrich a narrative of martyrdom that it promotes in its rhetoric, hoping that will bring popular support back to its side.

At the same time, Islamic militants once allied to Morsi have waged a campaign of violence focused on the army and security forces. There were new attacks Monday, including a drive-by shooting and a suicide car bombing that killed six soldiers and three policemen, as well as an assault for the first time against key civilian infrastructure — Egypt's main satellite communications facility.

"The scene last night spoke of a nation with several peoples," Mustafa el-Naggar, a former lawmaker and a Brotherhood critic, said of Sunday's events. "We had people who came out on the streets to die, another happy and singing, and a third group watching everything from a distance."

Morsi was ousted after nationwide protests by millions of Egyptians who accused him and his Islamist allies of going beyond their election mandate and trying to monopolize power. Many who sought his removal saw the army as rescuing the country from the Islamists.

They still see the military as a necessary protector against Islamists — while expressing faith that it won't seek power for itself.

Hamed Gabr, a 60-year-old who joined pro-military rallies in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday, said the fervor reflects the "patriotism of the people, not a mandate for a specific person" — even el-Sissi. He said the state of emergency should last "until security is totally reinstated."

But there are worries the fervor will throw Egypt back into the authoritarian ways of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, toppled in 2011.

Liberal politician Amr Shobaki warned in the daily El-Shorouk that fear of the Brotherhood and its rise to power through elections "has led the state to return to its old ways."

"What the Brotherhood left is a lack of faith in elected institutions, within the state and among many Egyptians," he wrote. "Fear has led many back to the idea of the hero president and the benevolent dictator."

The concert Sunday night in a Cairo stadium recalled — and went beyond — the nationalist displays under Mubarak and confirmed the military as the country's dominant political force.

After a day when battles left fires in the streets and bodies under blankets, el-Sissi sat next to the interim president with other top brass to watch a fireworks display and the lavish performances. TV cameras frequently focused on the general, in his military garb, keeping a steady, serious look as he watched the festivities.

Hussein Fahmy, a leading man from Egypt's cinema in the 1970s and 1980s, was the master of ceremonies. Nancy Ajram, a Lebanese pop star and sex symbol, blew kisses to the crowd and sang a patriotic hit with the lyrics: "Watch out, this isn't any Egypt. This is Egypt the victorious, the Egypt we carry in our hearts and minds." Behind her were dancers wearing Egypt's state seal on their chests.

The finale was a song that played on el-Sissi's often-used phrase, "Egypt is the mother of the world and is destined to be as big as the entire world." Some of the lyrics were lit in flames in a section of the stadium.

When el-Sissi finally spoke, he used what has become a trademark mix of emotional rhetoric about ordinary Egyptians' special bond with the army and promises of a bright future for the country's 90 million people.

"We will never forget that you stood by us. We would rather die than see you suffer," said the U.S.-trained infantry officer.

Egypt, he said, "will truly be as big as the entire world. You will see that, and the young people among you will remember that I said it."