After the Crackdown in Cairo: Understanding Why The Egyptian Army Deposed Muhammad Mursi

Egyptian Interior Ministry police executed on August 14 the long anticipated break-up of the two pro-Mursi “sit-in” protest camps in Cairo, which have been a daily presence since the former Islamist president was removed from office on July 3. The latest move by government forces resulted in some of the most intense fighting since the Egyptian military deposed former president Mursi with hundreds in the pro-Mursi camp killed and perhaps thousands wounded across the country. The Egyptian government announced that 43 policemen had been killed. These numbers will probably change in coming days as the confusion resulting from the intense street battles eventually clears. To provide maximum security, the interim government declared a state of emergency, which allows the massive Egyptian military to augment interior ministry forces across the country. 

Despite the presence of foreign press and other eyewitnesses to the events, it is too early to determine what exactly transpired.  Each party to the skirmishes blames the other. Both sides claim the other fired first. The Egyptian government has long claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was stockpiling weapons inside the sit-in camps, an accusation the MB repeatedly dismissed. [1] The Egyptian Ambassador to the United States commented on American television on the 14th that not only weapons had been found in the camps but "mass graves" as well. We should expect more accusations in the coming days and the Egyptian government will no doubt attempt to present the evidence for its case to the world. The vast majority of the Egyptian people so far appear to support the military and the interim government’s decisions. 

Reporters who speak with representatives from opposing sides of violent clashes each have their own versions of what triggers the violence. The conflicting accounts make it difficult to discern who did what and for what purpose. As the facts about the most recent events come to light, it is helpful to review the events that, at least from the Egyptian military’s perspective, created the conditions not only for the recent crackdown, but also for Mursi’s removal in the first place.

A Rally in the Sinai 

On the night after the Egyptian army deposed President Muhammad Mursi, the organization calling itself the Jihadi Salafist Current in Sinai held a rally in Northern Sinai in the environs of the Bedouin town Shaykh Zuweid near the Gaza border. [2] The speaker had a simple message to his mostly young, all-male audience: “We have established a War Committee in Sinai… If the traitorous army, or police, or intelligence approach us, we will confront them with all the instruments of war.” The speaker led the crowd to the chant, “No peace after today.” He called on the entire “jihadist current” to join them. Ten days afterward, heavily armed men attempted to assassinate Major General Ahmed Wasfi, the commander of Egyptian forces in the region; Israeli media reported hearing explosions in the same area a few days later. Sinai was a major element of disagreement in the army’s year of discontent with former President Mursi according to current senior military and security officials and is a major focus of operations now. Former general and vice-presidential candidate Sameh Seif Elyazel recounted that Mursi ordered General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to halt a planned Sinai offensive against jihadists by saying “I don’t want Muslims to shed the blood of fellow Muslims.” [3] 

U.S. officials joined with representatives of the EU, Qatar and the UAE to mediate a compromise between the MB and the state security forces. The international representatives reportedly tried to no avail to convince the MB to leave their sit-ins in Cairo. The sit-ins have become violent on occasion; hundreds of lives have been lost and many more injured in confrontations between the pro-Mursi demonstrators and security forces, even before the most recent crackdown. Recognizing the danger of serious violence without a compromise, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton issued a joint statement on August 7, which offered a stark assessment: “This remains a very fragile situation, which holds not only the risk of more bloodshed and polarization in Egypt, but also impedes the economic recovery which is so essential for Egypt’s successful transition.” [5] Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour offered a starker assessment in a televised speech on August 7 when he said “all diplomatic efforts to end violence and bloodshed in Egypt have failed.” [4] 

Various voices on all sides continued to indicate that some sort of resolution was still possible, even as the government continued to confirm its intention to clear the camps forcibly if the MB were to resist disassembling them peacefully. In the absence of a compromise, it proved impossible to avoid violence in Cairo. Police took strong measures to return order to the streets including forcefully ending the MB sit-ins at temporary camps in the city. 

It is in the United States’ strategic interest for Egypt to be at peace, economically secure and democratic and it is important for the killing of Egyptians by all sides to stop. Previously, the U.S. administration, avoiding a decision concerning whether the ouster of Mursi was a coup, called on the military to move swiftly to return Egypt to a democratically-elected civilian government—a position that Secretary Kerry repeated on August 14 as he condemned the violence. U.S. officials had stated that all parties should have the right to participate in the political process and that all parties have the right to hold peaceful demonstrations, including the sit-ins staged by the MB. 

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Position 

The MB does not have the power to defeat the military by force of arms; with the exception of the Sinai, Egypt is not good guerrilla territory, as previous jihadist insurgencies in the 1980s and 1990s discovered. The Egyptian military stated that they oppose returning Mursi to power but do not necessarily oppose MB candidates in new parliamentary elections. General al-Sisi has stated publicly that the next election could be subject to international monitoring, unlike the one that brought Mursi to power. It is extremely unlikely that the MB could win the next presidential election in the face of widespread popular dissatisfaction with former President’s Mursi’s term in office. The MB may be able, as they have in the past, to win some parliamentary seats among the parts of the population that still support them. The MB has thus far publicly rejected any solution to the current crisis that does not include reinstating Mursi—the one option that the military and the interim government reject absolutely (Egypt Independent, August 9). The MB’s ultimate intentions are not clear, in particular because of the disarray inside the MB organization. 

MB spokesmen have said consistently that they are for peaceful demonstrations and want to return the democratically-elected president to power via peaceful protest. The interim government, however, has accused MB leaders of inciting violence in speeches­. MB protestors have been heard chanting about shedding blood and giving up their lives. Outside the camps along the Nile and in the Sinai, a violent campaign is being waged against Coptic Christians, for which independent Egyptian human rights groups are increasingly blaming the MB (Egypt Independent, July 13; Ahram Online, August 7). Mutilated bodies have mysteriously appeared in Cairo near the two pro-Mursi camps, while human rights groups have documented eyewitness accounts of torture, beatings and even stabbings by MB inside the camps (NPR, August 6). In one incident four younger MB members of a group called “Muslim Brothers Against Violence” were beaten and flogged in the Nasr City camp for trying to circulate a petition to remove the current MB leadership (al-Monitor, July 23). 

The MB seems to want the United States to use its influence with the Egyptian Army, but MB spokesman Essam al-Erian has called on all U.S. diplomats to leave Egypt and signaled that crowds should besiege the U.S. embassy, an act that would be bound to end in violence (Egypt Independent, August 6). Ranking members of the MB have made ambiguous statements, for example Safwat al-Hegazi claimed that the MB only conducts peaceful demonstrations, but rejected the army’s offer of a “safe exit” if members left the camps peacefully. Al-Hegazi, who was wanted for questioning by authorities on suspicion of having incited violence stated: “We won’t leave here until our president, Muhammad Mursi, comes back” (Gulf Times, July 13). Members organized the assembly of makeshift brick walls on or near the major arteries in the heart of Cairo—something bound to draw a military and police response. According to one anonymous source in the Egyptian government, “the leaders are not in the crowds as they carry out these orders, as though the leaders expect violence and are conveniently absent when it occurs.” [6]

The MB has consistently denied accusations of collusion with groups like Gama’a Islamiyya (GI) and Hamas, which much of the international community identifies as terrorists. Yet, there are persistent reports of Hamas and GI snipers associated with the MB on top of buildings in Cairo firing on crowds, mirroring accusations against government security forces for the same activity. The Hamas members are thought to belong to the so-called Team 95, a paramilitary group led by former Minister of Youth, Osama Yassin. The assertions of the existence of Team 95 first surfaced at the time of the revolution against former President Hosni Mubarak. The MB initially denied the existence of Team 95 but later confirmed it, claiming that Team 95 was mostly a sports group used for protection against violence (Egypt Independent, October 1). [7] If, as the military asserts, the MB had weapons inside its Cairo camps, it would have taken only one bullet fired into the midst of soldiers to prompt a lethal response. The MB has consistently denied these allegations, however, very few Egyptians believe the denials. 

How the Military Lost Confidence in Mursi 

Recently (before the crackdown on MB camps in Cairo), several independent polls agreed that the military had the support of the approximately 70 percent of the population and the figure will probably increase if the crisis continues (Jadaliyya, July 22; Ahram Online, August 3). The military intends to use that support to stabilize Egypt, defeat violent groups within their borders, provide for an inclusive constitution and give the Egyptian economy a chance to recover. The military has not expressed a desire to rule Egypt, although they undoubtedly want to maintain their special status. According to the recent polls, a large majority of the population believe those actions in the long run are intended to give Egyptians the jobs, dignity and social justice that they asked for in the revolt against Mubarak.

In addition to responding to a popular mandate delivered through street politics, the military had other concerns that are within their responsibility to secure and protect the integrity of the Egyptian state. According to Egyptian sources with access to government officials, four signal events convinced the military that Mursi was not so much president of Egypt as he was the representative of the internationalist project of the traditional MB. First, in December 2012, President Mursi asked General al-Sisi to convene a meeting of opposition factions to look for points of reconciliation. Later, according to Egyptian sources the military was to conclude that Mursi was actually doing the bidding of the Guidance Office of the MB, who had thought opposition leaders would not show up, thus giving Mursi a political advantage. In fact, opposition leaders began to show up to the meeting and al-Sisi was then asked to cancel it. The impression was that neither the convening nor the canceling was Mursi’s decision; instead the MB Guidance Office was the real power (al-Masry al-Youm, December 12, 2012; Alaahd, December 12, 2012). 

Next, in February, al-Sisi and other military leaders met with Mursi to present a global threat assessment consisting of details of external and internal threats to Egypt. The net impression among those attending the meeting was that the President was not receptive to their concerns. The third event was the openings offered to Iran involving President Ahmadinejad’s red carpet visit to Cairo, also in February, and allowing Iranian tourists to visit Egypt. The army and Egyptian Salafists opposed this opening with Iran, but the President did not heed their advice. Recently, government security claims that Iranian intelligence was operating in Cairo became public (Haaretz, February 5). Finally, on June 22 al-Sisi provided the president with a threat briefing and advice that he needed to reconcile with the opposition to get Egypt back on track (Egypt Independent, July 25). Again, Mursi was not receptive. The next day al-Sisi publicly delivered his one-week deadline for Mursi and the opposition to find consensus to address Egypt’s problems. 

The Military’s Dilemma 

The Egyptian Military was faced with a dilemma when massive demonstrations demanded that Mursi follow Mubarak’s example and leave office. Should the military ignore the people’s loud expression of its will and lose their support or should they comply with the demands and be seen by the international community as executing a coup against Egypt’s democratically-elected president? In the end, it seems that pressing strategic concerns, such as Sinai, provided the decisive motive in the military’s calculations and tipped the scales against Mursi.

Since Mubarak’s fall the Sinai has come unglued. In addition to its usually restive Bedouin, various jihadist groups have taken up residence. These include Hamas, al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda inspired jihadist groups and others who are hostile not only to Israel but also to the Egyptian state itself. They have attacked tourist locations, military facilities and checkpoints. Their numbers are not great, but in classic guerrilla fashion they are effective at creating mayhem. They have engaged in kidnappings, bombings, killings and attempted assassinations and have smuggled the tools of terrorism into Sinai and Gaza. They have also on occasion attempted to use the Sinai as a platform to attack Israel. The MB maintains that it is not behind violence in the Sinai. Two pieces of evidence convinced the military that the MB was at least colluding with violent groups in the Sinai, even if they did not actually control them. The first piece of evidence was when President Mursi asked the military to go easy on them; it was an order they could not obey (Associated Press, July 18). The second piece of evidence was the statement made after Mursi’s ouster when prominent MB figure Muhammad al-Baltagi stated: “We can stop what is happening in Sinai in a moment; only release Mursi and restore him to his former position.” The military has been vigorously pressing its campaign against terrorist groups in the Sinai up to the borders of Gaza and beyond; as Haaretz reported in July “according to Palestinian sources, Egyptian fighter jets flew over the Gaza Strip for the first time” (Haaretz, July 14). 

In addition to the Sinai groups, other militant organizations that used to be in jail are on the street and supporting the MB. One of these groups is Gama’a Islamiyya (GI), whose representative sat on the podium with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri when they declared war on the United States and Jews; whose former leader, the Blind Shaykh Rahman, is serving a 165-year sentence in the United States for planning bombings in the New York area and who authored the fatwa (religious ruling) used to justify Sadat’s assassination. [8] While in prison, the group “renounced violence” but since their release they have consistently threatened violence if their goal of a jihadist state is not achieved.  

Cairo has also become the transfer hub of choice for jihadists traveling from Europe to the Middle East. The borders with Libya and Gaza have become the transit point for smuggled weapons, including bomb material, that have ended up in terror cells inside Egypt, including Cairo suburbs where the MB has its headquarters. Egyptian security is adamant that Hamas is involved in violence in Cairo as well as Sinai. Security forces arrested four suspected terrorists on July 4 in a Cairo suburb with explosives and both police and military uniforms. A security source stated that those arrested belonged to Hamas (Ynetnews, July 4). [9] 

Despite the kudos Mursi received for helping prevent a renewed Israeli invasion of Gaza and another war, Mursi avoided uttering the word Israel in public and never personally spoke to any Israeli officials. He left all that to the military and intelligence services that maintained good relations with Israel until today. Meanwhile, the second article of Hamas’s charter, unchanged until today, states that Hamas is a “wing” of the MB. 

Mursi appeared to be ready to cede some land on the border to the government of Sudan, which the military could not countenance; so defying Mursi, al-Sisi sent his chief of staff to Khartoum “to make it crystal clear to the Sudanese that the Egyptian armed forces [would] never surrender” Egyptian territory. [10] 


To the Egyptian military and security forces, the Mursi government seemed to be working against the interests of the state. The military could not accept Mursi’s orders to refrain from attacks on violent jihadist groups in Sinai or his refusal to agree to counterintelligence operations against Iranian agents operating in Egypt (al-Dostor, July 31). With support from the majority of the population, the army and security forces removed Mursi from power and remain adamant that no solution to the current impasse will include his reinstatement. The military’s actions thus far align with their stated intention of returning Egypt to a democratic process. Nevertheless, the violence on both sides must stop for order and economic productivity to resume in Egypt. An inclusive process to establish a constitution should follow that is minimally acceptable to all parties; renewed violence will continue to be a threat if a compromise suitable to all sides is not found. Such a compromise appeared difficult to reach previously since the Egyptian military and security establishment commanded by conservative Muslim officers moved from barely tolerating the Mursi presidency to vigorous opposition based on a firm conviction that the MB’s internationalist Islamist project runs directly counter to Egyptian strategic interests. The recent violence has made compromise all the more problematic. However, we should expect the military and the interim government to continue on their stated political roadmap to a constitution and new elections with or more likely without a compromise with the MB. 

Dr. Michael W. S. Ryan is an independent consultant and researcher on Middle Eastern security issues and a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. He is the author of Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (Columbia University Press, 2013). 


1. For example, see “Military spokesman: data confirm the presence of weapons in the [two] sit-in camps at Raba’a al-Adawiyya and al-Nahda,” (Translated from Arabic), Akhbar Ennaharda, August 2, 2013.

2. See:

3. "The Root of Egypt’s Coup: Morsi giving free hand to Sinai Islamists," Haaretz, July 18, 2013,; In addition Haaretz analyzes a series of anonymous officials interviews with AP.

4. "A day before Eid celebrations, no end in sight for government-Brotherhood crisis," Ahram Online, August 7, 2013, see:,-no-end-in-sight-for.aspx.

5. Ibid.

6. Author’s email exchange with official on July 27, 2013.

7. For Yassin’s acknowledgement of "Firqa 95 in Arabic see:

8. One of Mursi’s first acts as president was to request the United States to free the Blind Shaykh and send him back to Egypt. GI is the organization that slaughtered 58 tourists in Luxor in 1997 during a prolonged and bloody jihadist insurgency against the central government. Mursi went to this organization to select the new governor over the very place where that atrocity occurred.

9. For pictures and numbers of the weapons confiscated on the borders see the Egyptian Military Facebook page:

10. The source for al-Sisi’s defiance of the border compromise with Sudan is a well-placed figure with access to the Egyptian government. See also "The root of Egypt’s coup: Morsi giving free hand to Sinai Islamists,", (July 18, 2013).