Defense Minister Colonel General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi granted a rare and exclusive interview to the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that was published on Monday. The Armed Forces chief touched on key moments of the period which saw him rise to the post of defense minister through to the events of June 30, giving him ample room to clarify and defend the steps taken by the army over the past tumultuous months.
In the four-hour long discussion with AMAY’s Yasser Rizk, Sisi said that the mass protests that broke out nationwide on June 30 calling for Morsi’s ouster, and the military’s subsequent removal of the president from office on July 3, “saved the country from an impending civil war that would have broken out within two months.”
This statement comes just a day after October 6 War commemorations were overshadowed by clashes between supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi and security forces as well as residents of various neighborhoods in Cairo and Giza, which left more than 50 dead.
Rizk prefaced his interview by lauding Sisi’s amicable demeanor, his even-toned, confident voice, the clear way in which he expresses himself and his balanced and studied thought process. But his most praiseworthy quality, according to the interviewer, was the general’s “deep faith in, and high regard for, the people.”
Sisi allowed himself to delve into the details of the period that began with the deep polarization of the country sparked by Morsi’s November 22 Constitutional Declaration, through to the former president’s removal; but he was evasive on details that had to do with his own taking over of former Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi’s position.
As he described the moment that many interpreted as Morsi forcing Tantawi into early retirement and appointing Sisi in his place, the incumbent defense minister claimed his relationship with Tantawi was amicable till then end.
This, he said, is one of many examples of the “military institution’s unwavering core values of integrity, patriotism and loyalty to the [military leadership] and the nation,” thus directly responding to repeated allegations of disturbances and divisions within the military hierarchy.
Tarek Khedr, former Damietta governor and head of the constitutional law department at the Police Academy, told Mada Masr that Sisi refrained from discussing the mistakes made under Tantawi’s rule because, as a basic principle, the military rarely speaks of negatives, preferring instead to focus on the future and learning from past mistakes.
In this vein, Sisi told AMAY that there are events that could never be discussed publically, and that the period since January 25 2011 up until the present has absorbed a huge amount of the institution’s time and effort.
He added, “Enough talking about the past, let us speak of the future and implementing solutions.”
In a similar fashion, while making it a point not to insult Morsi, Sisi clearly outlined the numerous political missteps that culminated in his ouster.
In Khedr’s assessment, “Sisi wanted to covey that he intervened in the ruling process under Morsi to defend the state. Also, that the military wants to help reform state institutions, and the first step toward that was removing Morsi.”
In the interview, Sisi described incidents that would suggest that Morsi was putting the Muslim Brotherhood’s interests above the state, and furthermore repeatedly ignored the advice and opportunities given him by the army generals to succeed in ruling the country.
But in other ways, Sisi excused Morsi for not realizing the weighty demands that come with governing a state like Egypt.
While he suspected from the start that Morsi would not uphold national interests above those of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi said that he hoped to be proven wrong.
“I hoped for a new era that would steer the country far from the threats surrounding it, and create a climate of security, stability and development that would realize the people’s ambitions,” he told AMAY.
The problem, he claimed, stemmed from the the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, “which affects their ability to govern any nation” because they cannot deal with the conflict of interests between the state and the group.
The reason people took to the streets in protest, he alleged, was because this wide divergence became overtly palpable.
In Sisi’s view, it was never a question of whether Morsi could be a president for all Egyptians, but whether he wanted to be.
“I do not support the view that there was a rejection of the former president by the army which escalated to the point that we forcibly changed the regime — this is wrong and not the reality,” Sisi insisted.
In several instances, he attributed Morsi’s missteps to this core conflict between being part of Brotherhood and governing a nation, as well as an inability to mend the Brotherhood’s historic rifts with the Armed Forces.
This was most obvious on October 6 of last year, when Morsi invited Tarek al-Zomor, who had a role in late President Anwar Sadat’s assassination, to take a front row seat at the commemoration events, a move that many denounced as beyond tasteless an insult to the holiday.
But what ultimately launched one of Egypt’s major political crises was the constitutional declaration Morsi passed on November 22 in 2012, which gave him sweeping authoritative powers and exempted his decisions from judicial review.
This is where many think Morsi and the Brotherhood’s time in power began to unravel. The declaration prompted mass protests which ended in bloody clashes. The nationwide polarization between Brotherhood supporters and opposition forces that began then only widened in the following months.
The declaration, Sisi said, clearly revealed the Brotherhood’s plan to cement their hold on power, “and began a period of crisis between the president and his supporters on the one hand, and the opposition as well as the state institutions on the other.”
It was then that Sisi made a more obvious appearance on the political scene, when he called for a national dialogue.
Although some analysts and observers argued this call was a manifest intervention in politics, Sisi claimed he was simply trying to ensure that Morsi and his party could succeed in ruling the country.
It was also a way to put Egypt, which could no longer bear the economic and political impact of instability, on a more secure path, he explained.
“As political conflicts escalated between the presidency and the state as well as the opposition, I felt that the Armed Forces would end up being embroiled in it and the state would pay the price,” he said.
While Morsi initially welcomed and approved the call for dialogue, he was later swayed by people who had an interest in rejecting the initiative, thus missing the opportunity to mend the rifts between the Brotherhood and other national forces, Sisi said.
Without pointing to any person or group in particular, he only clarified that “this same pattern continued until the June 30 revolution, and these people are the same who called for continuing the Rabea [al-Adaweya Mosque] sit-in after July 3.”
When Morsi was removed by an army-imposed ultimatum on July 3, sit-ins by supporters of the Brotherhood and other Islamist factions continued for more than a month. Security forces moved to forcibly disperse the Rabea el-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins on August 14, and the ensuing clashes left hundreds dead.
These groups, Sisi told AMAY, “have no political or security sense, and their advice is the reason we are where we are today.”
The military institution, which “does not seek power,” then called off the national dialogue at the request of the presidency.
But in April, at the last meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that Morsi attended, the president was warned that the nation was under threat, and steps had to be taken to heed the people’s demands.
“We cared much more about what was being reported about the borders … and the Suez Canal development project than what was being said about dismissing military leaders. National security is much more important,” Sisi said.
By May, and as the Tamarod (Rebel) petition calling for Morsi’s removal gained increasing traction, warnings to political powers were more frequent and direct. But, as Sisi argues, they were directed at all political players on the scene, not at the president per say.
“These statements carried messages to all parties, especially the regime, urging them to cooperate to overcome the crisis, after previous warnings about the threats facing the state and sliding into chaos were ignored.
“I wanted to give the former president the chance to rectify his stance in a way that would save face,” he insisted.
In a later part of the interview, Sisi rejected labeling what occurred as a coup, saying, “I cannot carry out a coup because this has no presence in our ethics, and is not in the interest of the state.”
“I reiterated that it was best to reach change through the ballot boxes, after numerous reconciliation attempts failed,” he emphasized, but that it was also vital not to disappoint the people’s aspirations and their trust in the army.