LONDON – “I have a request for all Egyptians,” General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s president, declared in 2013. Just three weeks after staging the most brutal military coup in Egypt’s history, he wanted “all honorable, decent Egyptians” to take to the streets to march for the military, thereby giving him and his army “a mandate and an order to fight potential violence and terrorism.” Tens of thousands of Egyptians heeded his call. Yet, three years later, the violence and terrorism Sisi pledged to prevent remain a potent reality.
In fact, the military itself has been a leading perpetrator – and instigator – of violence. Its assertion of leadership included cracking down on anyone who protested the overthrow of Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi. The crackdown culminated on August 14, 2013, when the military stormed sit-ins in Cairo’s Raba‘a Square and Giza’s al-Nahda Square, and carried out what Human Rights Watch called the “worst mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s modern history” and “a likely crime against humanity.” More than 1,000 demonstrators died in less than ten hours. The Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights recorded 932 fully documented bodies, 294 partly documented bodies, and 29 undocumented bodies, including 17 women and 30 teenage girls and boys.
The message was clear: those in power were clearly convinced that eradicating their opponents was a better strategy than including them. Young political activists who wanted change quickly realized that ballots, strikes, and sit-ins would not change a corrupt regime – and might well get them killed.
Unsurprisingly, the coup and subsequent crackdown on opponents triggered a spike in an enduring insurgency. Almost immediately, in response to an already restive North Sinai, elite brigades from the Second and Third Field Armies, assisted by the air force, launched operation “Desert Storm” to quell the burgeoning rebellion. Afterward, the military spokesperson declared that 78 “terrorists” had been killed and 207 arrested, effectively ending terrorism in the Sinai.