With the current changes sweeping Egypt following the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, the Egyptian armed forces is back at the forefront of news reports.
Daily News Egypt met the official spokesman of the armed forces, Colonel Ahmed Ali, for an in-depth discussion of the situation.
How was the decision taken to oust President Mohamed Morsi?
This was not an easy decision, but we have to look at the Egyptian state throughout a year of former president Morsi’s rule.
We found a clear division in the country, starting with the disregard for constitutional laws [from the presidency]. This was followed by the [presidential] declarations, the siege of the Supreme Constitutional Court as well as the Media City and the clashes by the presidential palace, which led to the death of several young Egyptians. Throughout these events the president focused only on addressing his followers. This was when the armed forces started to sense the danger. In November  the head of the Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF) [Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi] spearheaded an initiative for a national dialogue, which was positively received by different groups and public figures. Despite the fact that the presidency knew about this initiative beforehand, it foiled it at the very last moments.
Then began a series of internal and external crises. The armed forces offered the presidency what we call a “strategic evaluation of a situation” exhibiting the possible dangers facing the country; politically, economically and socially. This was met with indifference from their side and a lack of understanding of current dangers.
This coupled with anger from the Egyptian public because of the lack of services as well rising prices throughout the last months, showed a lack of understanding and a poor evaluation of the people’s anger. Added to this was an unprecedented division in Egyptian society into Muslims and infidels as seen in dealing with Tamarod (Rebellion) campaign, which asked for certain social demands to be met which may have been unconstitutional, but carried democratic goals. This campaign collected over 22 million supporters. In return, we found that dealing with the popular anger was met with threatening messages and accusations of apostasy, as if anyone who did not support President Morsi was an infidel. This alarmed the armed forces; millions were planning to take to the streets while thousands were promising them annihilation and destruction. It was the duty of the armed forces according to the Egyptian constitution to protect the national security of the country. We had to take action, thus we redeployed military personnel on the streets on 26 June, days before the planned protests to safeguard Egyptians and to prevent clashes that may lead to death or even develop into a civil war.
We had a previous experience on 28 January ; once the police apparatus fell, several important facilities were targeted such as the Cairo Museum and banks. We took a preemptive step to prevent this.
The presidency was dealing with the situation as if several thousand would protest, [just] like every Friday and this was stated [by them]. This was how the presidency analysed the situation. The armed forces perceived the millions that will take to the streets because of the tense status of the country, the increasing prices and lack of services as well as the receding regional and international role of Egypt.
We gave the presidency a week to understand the seriousness of the situation. Then, the former president came out with threatening messages to all; the media, the police and even the military institution. The message was simply “a year is enough for you [all].” His speech focused on either legitimacy or blood. He ignored that legitimacy is the will of the people, and treated this legitimacy as if it were untouchable, while at the same time not giving anything in return.
On Friday [28 June], Egyptians started heading to the streets and the numbers started to be clearly in the hundreds of thousands. The Colonel General Al-Sisi advised the president repeatedly to meet the demands of the people, which focused on constitutional amendments and a change in the Cabinet and [later] escalated to early presidential elections. By the end of the given week, the armed forces advised him to conduct a referendum on his presidency, [particularly] since he felt strongly about his legitimacy and his support from the people, but we were not heard.
We then issued the 48-hour warning which was also met with disregard, followed by another threatening speech [by the president] where the word legitimacy was mentioned dozens of times. What marked this speech was “it is either me or the Syrian model”. This message was analysed by the military institution as very dangerous to the national security. Neither Islam nor politics say “it is either me or death to everyone.” The armed forces on 3 July felt that the people because of anger and the unresponsiveness [on part of the president] will take measures into their own hands. Some will be mobilised based on sectarian messages and at times be armed. Thus the decision was made.
Some view what happened as a military coup.
How can it be a military coup when currently there is a civilian president? The head of the Supreme Constitutional Court was chosen to the satisfaction of different political groups. Currently there is also a civilian government that has been chosen while the military institution is keeping away from the political life.
Others view the act as a military backed empowerment of the liberal sector in Egypt over the religious one that won the presidential elections.
We were biased to the millions [on the streets], not any one group of people. The armed forces belong to the people – all the people, regardless of affiliations. This makes the armed forces creed a military one; it does not allow political or religious affiliations [to dominate decisions].
This leads to a question about rumours on Brotherhood members and Jihadists who were accepted by the military academies.
The 16 and 17-year old boys [accepted in military academies] are quite young to be affiliated with [certain] groups. For example, former President Morsi’s nephew was accepted in the military academy and he is 17 years old. Currently he does not belong to any religious group and his father is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Any member of the military institution swears an oath of not belonging to any political or religious affiliations and throughout his career if any change in this [creed] is detected, he is instantly fired.
Thus, the worry of the Egyptian people on this matter is unfounded. The military institution has its own calculations to ensure the political pureness of the institution, confirming loyalty [of its members] only to the country, because this is very dangerous.
[For example on 3 July], the armed forces met the demands of 33 million people on the streets.
How was the 33 million number calculated? Was it calculated by the Armed Forces?
Several institutions calculated this number. It was quite clear on the streets as well. I believe that the numbers were no less than five or six times those calculated in 2011. Cairo’s Tahrir Square was completely filled with all its sub-streets. The same was seen by the presidential palace, the defence ministry and the Qobba Palace. Cairo alone is a clear example of the refusal of the Egyptian street of the policies of the last year [of President Morsi’s rule] and its desire for reformation. And it is of the democratic principles for people to express their demands and to offer alternatives. It was the role of the military institution, before Egyptians faced off on the streets, to step in and meet the demands of the majority of the people.
Was the military pressured by outside forces prior to taking the decision to oust President Morsi?
When the military institution takes a decision, it is for national security, the benefit and welfare of the Egyptian people. This is what happened in 2013 and 2011.
What is the current status of former President Morsi?
President Morsi is treated as fit for a former president. The values of the military institution dictate respecting a person who held the post of the president of Egypt. The procedure taken in his situation is a preemptive one because of the tension and instability on the Egyptian streets: just as he has supporters, he also has more opponents. Keeping him away from the current scene is for his own security and for the stability of Egypt. It is not an arbitrary decision; at least this is how we view it.
How about the outside pressure to release President Morsi?
Pro-Morsi protesters at Rabaa Al-Adaweya mosque no longer view the army as their own, according to several statements
The situation is quite difficult. Since the beginning of the crisis we have confirmed that the army belongs to all Egyptians, which is not something new. It answered the majority’s demands. We have stated repeatedly that there has to be reconciliation, and that the roadmap put and agreed upon by the Egyptian people includes everyone without exclusion. The decisions were taken to rectify conditions and to help Egypt attain its rightful position on the political map. We have also promised that there will not be legal prosecution [to any protester at Rabaa Al-Adaweya]. We have never questioned the patriotism of the religious groups. They are a main element of society. Everyone can work under the flag of Egypt. We never hoped to see green and black flags in the squares of Egypt, only the Egyptian flag.
In return, there are some who are trying to portray what is happening as a religious crisis; that Islam is in danger. We are all Muslims and Christians with religious rights. No one is questioning the other’s religion. It is a political crisis, a political round. The religious groups may have lost this round, but there is an open range for them to gain back their ground.
Also there are calls inciting violence with talks about [possible] bombings, as if they are controlled [from afar]. Anyone who reads such a statement will not be fooled by attempts to scare Egyptians. Such people do not understand that the Egyptian people are not scared because they are strong people and they have a strong army to protect them.
The bombing mentality is not an attribute of the Egyptian people and if it happens, those behind it are known.
Do you believe the leaflets thrown from helicopters over Rabaa Al-Adaweya will send this message?
We do not despair that the people at Rabaa understand that we respect them and we do not question that they are citizens with equal rights. I address them continuously in hopes that they understand there is not a religious aspect to this crisis: join your family, the Egyptian family, and not religious groups. People are free in how they practice religion. They will not be pursued legally [if they decide to leave] unless they have criminal involvement and this is not the jurisdiction of the military but the prosecution.
Several human rights organisations have criticised the overuse of power on part of the military in the latest Republican Guard clashes.
I have a question: why was the only part that was not filmed the part where we supposedly shot at people who were praying? Historically, when has the armed forces opened fire on people who pray?
The sit-in has existed for days, why wait for them to pray and then shoot them?
The scene here is psychological or propaganda warfare targeting the Egyptian army. This incident wanted to showcase the army “killing men who pray as well as women and children,” and of course there were several forged images online.
Trying to portray that there are divisions inside the army and trying to send messages that some army commanders threatened Colonel General Al-Sisi to withdraw the [3 July] statement are all fallacies and rumours. These online [reports] that have no basis inside the armed forces, and are attempts to delude supporters of the [Rabaa Al-Adaweya] sit-in that “victory is imminent and that the Second Field Army is divided and your brothers in the armed forces will desert the army and join you.” False messages continually aired as such. The armed forces is a coherent body, and I have advised [those formulating such rumours] to read history so if they want to fake information it would at least make some sense.
As for the overuse of power, we have to point out that it was an armed sit-in. The first who fell was a paratrooper captain who was shot with the bullet entering from the head out from the throat. Peaceful protesting is not allowed in front of military institutions , much less an armed sit-in with automatic weapons, shotguns and Molotov cocktails right by the gates of the Republican Guard [headquarters]. The idea that a sit-in was violently attacked is a lie, but the fact is that we are talking about an armed sit-in where live ammunition was used against soldiers whose job is to protect [said] building. Rules of engagement [in protests] is gradual; use of tear gas, blanks, rubber bullets and civilian police with bird shot, but when soldiers are hit with live bullets, surely there has to be an adequate response.
We do not know the accurate numbers of the dead, for the “victims” were moved to Rabaa Al-Adaweya mosque first for photos to be taken of them instead of being transported by ambulances as per regular procedure. They had the bodies hold Quran in photos. It was not a correct medical procedure. Also, several videos were aired showing them killing their supporters in order to show that the army is viciously killing them.
Currently, the president has issued an investigation in the matter and we will respect the results.
Has there been any communication with Muslim Brotherhood leaders?
As soon as Egypt had a new president [Adly Mansour], the military had no political role despite reports of the contrary. The head of the armed forces and the statement issued on 3 July confirmed the complete aversion of the military institution from the political scene. There is a president, a cabinet and constitutional amendments in the making. We are keen not to be a part of the political process because our focus is national security.
Despite repeated affirmation of staying clear from the political scene Colonel General Al-Sisi met with US Deputy Secretary Burns days ago.
There are strategic ties between Egypt and the United States, the most important is the military cooperation. Egypt is a pivotal nation and very important to the States. There are several ways of cooperation: arming, development and training. It is a historical relationship. The most important factor is the American military aid, which is part of the state department’s budget as suggested by the American administration and agreed upon by the Congress. This aid is implemented by the [Egyptian] Ministry of Defence, which deals with several American institutions including the Pentagon, the Congress and the State Department. A politician’s meeting with the defence minister is not an aberration to staying clear from the political process.
I affirm that these meetings, which are usually called for by the American side, are not concerned with the internal affairs of the country, which the armed forces are always accused of being involved in.
With the current amendments to the constitution, how do you perceive the position of the budget of the armed forces in the coming constitution?
The position of the armed forces in the coming constitution is the same as the current one, and the same as the 1971 [constitution]; there are not any privileges to the military institution. The budget of the armed forces is the same in any other country, discussed as a lump sum in the parliament and then in detail at National Council for Defence. There is no apprehension because we have not demanded an exception status.
The current situation in Sinai is not clear and is affecting the tourism industry.
The security crisis in Sinai is not spread out. It is focused in the northeast, particularly in Rafah, Sheik Zuweid and the borders with Gaza. The armed forces has enough information on the criminal [activities] threatening the country and we have the abilities and forces to combat them and bring an end to the situation in days. However, there are several factors in such decisions. We will solve this situation with the accord and support of the people of Sinai who have historically collaborated with the armed forces. We are very determined to solve the crisis in Sinai. We also have ideas for development projects because we know that the invisible part of the crisis is the negligence that this region has faced throughout the last years.
I assure all Egyptians their army is strong enough, and has enough combative and information abilities to end this crisis.
Have there been any developments in exposure of those involved in killing the 16 soldiers by the Rafah borders last year?
In case there is any new information regarding this incident, we will publicise it.
What prompted the change in the way the military institution deals with the media and dissemination of information?
There is a new vision, a youthful leadership that believes in the importance of communication and the existence of information warfare. Also [we have] learned from the lessons of transitional period [in 2011-2012]. The military institution always revises and assesses its performance. We admit there was a lack in information and media coverage of the military institution throughout the last year and a half, which caused problems. We [currently] believe in the importance of communicating with the media.
Colonel General Al-Sisi is quite popular among Egyptians. Does he think of a political future for himself?
He is currently a soldier in the armed forces and does not aspire to any other role. But assuming that he retired and people suggested he run for presidency, is not this the democratic process? Or will we say the military institution [is behind it] again?