Nahlah Ayed: Crackdown or coup, what is Egypt's army up to?

Many Egyptions expect their army is gearing up for a crackdown or a coup, given the violence of the current uprising, Nahlah Ayed reports from Cairo. At the very least, it is trying to insinuate itself into what passes here for political dialogue.

Army chief al-Sisi sending out conflicting signals

Egyptian protesters clash with riot police near Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Tuesday. Intense fighting there engulfed two landmark hotels and forced the U.S. Embassy to suspend public services. (Khalil Hamra / Associated Press)

Why would the chief of the Egyptian army wade into the latest political crisis, with calamitous warnings that the country is in danger of falling apart?

"The continuing conflict between political forces and their differences concerning the management of the country could lead to a collapse of the state, and threaten future generations," said Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who also acts as defence minister.

Many in Egypt immediately suspected that, with the army's long history of direct involvement in the political affairs of this country, the reason for the statement is obvious: It is either threatening a crackdown — or a takeover.

But neither is likely, in the short term at least, given it's only been months since Egypt narrowly elected Mohammed Morsi to be its first post-revolution president, ending a messy period of military rule that assumed power after a discredited Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

CBC in Cairo

The CBC's Nahlah Ayed is in Cairo for three months to report in depth on a region she knows well and a country that was at the heart of the Arab Spring two years ago.

You can follow her on Twitter @NahlahAyed

Still bruised by the ugly experiences of that period, the army is loath to get involved at street level again.

As much as anything, the message from al-Sisi — who was appointed by Morsi but is apparently not a fan — seems more aimed at keeping one of the country's most powerful institutions in the game.

And part of the conversation, such as it is.

The problem is that, as al-Sisi points out, there seems to be little in the way of substantive conversation happening here between those who should be talking.

For weeks and months, both the liberal opposition and the Islamist camps have called for dialogue with each other, but on their own terms.

Morsi's latest invitation, within minutes of slapping a curfew and emergency law (reminiscent of the Mubarak years) on three Suez Canal cities, came on Sunday.

Less than 24 hours later, the largest coalition of opposition politicians rejected it, calling the invitation cosmetic.

Instability and violence, meanwhile, have often gone pretty much unchecked for the past few days, mostly in Port Said, and sporadically in Alexandria and Cairo.

In the process, an increasingly irate Egyptian populace has been seeking reassurance, but has been given little.

None of the parties to this messy transition to democracy has been able to provide the public even the smallest glimmer of light at the end of the revolutionary tunnel.

"Millions of Egyptians were really hopeful after (the revolution), and thought this was a totally new stage in Egypt," says political analyst Amina Khairy. "Of course events turned out another way. People are really shocked with what is happening."

Where are the police?

Many people, of all political stripes, are shocked at the violence of the past few days, but also at the lack of police presence, the ability of protesters to stop traffic or the underground metro virtually at will.  

Former Egyptian presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Mohamed El Baradei, members of the newly formed National Salvation Front, reject President Morsi's offer of dialogue on Monday. (Amr Nabil / Associated Press)

They are also increasingly shocked at the reportedly skyrocketing number of weapons available on the streets (just last night, a throng of gunmen tried to rob the Intercontinental Hotel, in front of which police and teenage protesters have clashed for days).

There's a lot of talking about all that — on television and in the newspapers, which is also where most of the public political debate happens here.

Yet it's amazing how little official information Egyptians have about the crisis that threatens their country. And how much of it is based on "sources" at best, or rumour and conspiracy theories, at worst.

For example, many Egyptians had expected that on Sunday Morsi might speak in more detail about the crisis and how he intends to solve it. Instead, he angrily lectured Egyptians on peaceful protest, and threatened to go further than imposing states of emergency.

Critics say that's part of the problem: Morsi has yet to be able to speak for and to all Egyptians in a transparent manner.

In parallel, critics of the main opposition alliance — the National Salvation Front, only weeks old — say that they have not yet learned how to at least appear publicly united.

They, too, need to find novel ways of showing discontent beyond protests.

And of course none of the main opponents have yet learned how to speak to each other — beyond the barbs in the media, on social media, and occasionally, violently on the streets.

"We're going to go over and over again with this indirect war between Muslim Brotherhood, and the opposition on the other side," says Khair. "We're going to live with this for some time."

So any Egyptians hoping for answers on what to expect next is simply getting this: That the opposition is planning more protests, and is considering boycotting the coming parliamentary elections if their conditions aren't met.

That the president is willing to crack down if necessary.

And that the army is there, watching it all, disapprovingly.

In other words, get used to stalemate, and talk among yourselves.