Looming Airstrikes in Syria Pose Test for Egypt's Leaders and the Opposition

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CAIRO -- Egyptians on Thursday braced for the ninth weekend of protests against the military's ouster of the country's president as the looming possibility of Western airstrikes against Syria injected a new element of volatility onto the streets.

The degree of participation and violence at the protests expected on Friday will be a pivotal test of the effectiveness of the new government's crackdown on the supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, especially his Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Small protests in certain neighborhoods of Cairo, the capital, and larger demonstrations in other Egyptian cities have continued every night since Mr. Morsi's ouster on July 3, despite an evening curfew, the suspension of due process and a wave of mass shootings and arrests by security forces that have decimated the Brotherhood. But the group's decapitation as an organizing force has made the continuing protest movement harder to predict or control, potentially increasing the chances of violence.

Now the expectation of American-led airstrikes against Syria has added a new variable. The prospect of Western military action in the region is overwhelmingly unpopular here across the political spectrum, even if it is to punish President Bashar al-Assad's government for the use of chemical weapons.

If the strikes occur, they could swell the street protests, albeit from the other side. At the moment the loudest outcry against the threat of Western strikes has not come from the Islamists but from groups that supported Mr. Morsi's ouster.

Fearful of the Islamist-dominated Syrian rebels, the new Egyptian government installed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has gone further to oppose the strikes than any other ostensible American ally in the region. It has broken with the pattern of reliable cooperation with Washington shown by former President Hosni Mubarak and also, for the most part, by Mr. Morsi.

After reluctantly signing onto an Arab League statement holding the Assad government responsible for the chemical weapons attack, the new government said Thursday that Egypt "strongly opposes any military strike as it has consistently opposed foreign military intervention in Syria." Instead, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy urged the acceleration of proposed negotiations "to find a political solution to the situation."

It was one of many signs of fraying relations with Washington. As the American ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, ends her assignment here this week, the state newspaper Al Ahram ran a front-page column accusing her of conspiring with the Brotherhood to bring militants into Egypt, then to split off the southern half of the country -- now a hotbed of unrest -- as an independent country with Minya as its capital.

After years of public silence about state media calumny, Ms. Patterson issued a letter to the editor calling the article "outrageous," "thoroughly unprofessional," "inciting misinformation" and "absolutely absurd and dangerous."

"This article isn't bad journalism; it isn't journalism at all," she wrote. "It is fiction, serving only to deliberately misinform the Egyptian public."

The government maintained its crackdown on citizens as well. Although it has relaxed the curfew until 9 p.m. most days, the government is requiring residents to stay inside after 7 p.m. on Friday or face arrest.

The military and the police vowed to respond with deadly force to any protests that threatened the public order. State television broadcast a statement from the Interior Ministry warning that its forces "will use live ammunition according to the regulations of legitimate self-defense" in order "to stand up to the attempts to undermine the stability of public security."

A government ministry issued a decree effectively outlawing the Egyptian affiliate of Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab television network. After the military shut down five Islamist satellite networks the night it ousted Mr. Morsi, state-run channels and private networks supportive of the takeover dominated the airwaves, and Al Jazeera's Egyptian network provided the only extensively coverage of the protests around the country.

Al Jazeera also said Thursday that six of its journalists remained in detention, including one held for over a month, another arrested Aug. 14, and four captured on Tuesday.

Continuing the roundup of Brotherhood leaders, the police on Thursday arrested Mohamed el-Beltagy, a former Brotherhood lawmaker considered a moderate within the group and one of the last fugitive leaders.

A Brotherhood-led coalition released a statement calling for "peaceful" protests on Friday.

"The Egyptian people have refused to be enslaved once again," it said, promising the country's largest protests.

But Brotherhood officials who are still at large -- some avoiding telephones for fear of surveillance and moving constantly to avoid capture -- say that the group's internal communication have been all but completely cut off, severely limiting its ability to organize. At least several hundred Brotherhood members or leaders have been killed by security forces in mass shootings at protests. Thousands of others have been detained or arrested, including almost all of the group's top leaders.

The Brotherhood and its coalition have repeatedly called for nonviolence. But officials of the group, known here as Ikhwan, or the Brothers, say they can no longer control the protests.

"Seventy-five percent of the demonstrators now are not Ikhwan," Sherief Abulmagd, a Brotherhood-affiliated officer of an engineer's union said in an e-mail, so the Brotherhood "cannot control their reaction if the police and army forces keep shooting live bullets at them."

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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