Egypt's powerful army chief described the Muslim Brotherhood as "arrogant and tyrannical" while deposed Islamist president Mohammed Morsi was in power, saying in an interview published Tuesday that Brotherhood leaders had warned him of "terrorist attacks" if Morsi were overthrown.
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The comments were the first account by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of his overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected president on July 3. Since then, the military-backed interim government has waged a full-fledged crackdown on the group, accusing top leaders of incitement and murder, rounding up some 2,000 members and killing hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators.
In its latest move at dismantling the sprawling organization, banned by a sweeping court order last month, the government on Tuesday revoked the permit of the association the Brotherhood founded earlier this year to give itself a legal face.
In his interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, el-Sissi said that the turmoil of the past three months could have been avoided if Morsi had resigned as millions of demonstrators demanded in protests that started on June 30. Days after the protests began, he said, he met with senior Brotherhood figures, including the group's strongman Khairat el-Shater.
He said el-Shater warned him that the Brotherhood, which made up the backbone of Morsi's administration, would not be able to control retaliation by Islamic groups in Sinai and other areas if Morsi were removed.
"El-Shater spoke for 45 minutes, vowing terrorist attacks, violence, killings by the Islamic groups," el-Sissi told the paper. "El-Shater pointed with his finger as if he is shooting a gun."
"His talk irritated me in an unprecedented way [...] because it showed arrogance and tyranny," el-Sissi said. "I exploded and said [...] 'What do you want? You either want to rule us or kill us?"
Addressing Islamists now in the wake of Morsi's fall, el-Sissi said, "Watch out while dealing with Egyptians. You have dealt with Egyptians as if you are right and they are wrong ... [as if] you are the believer and they are the infidels. This is arrogance through faith."
In the first part of the interview published Monday, el-Sissi said that he told Morsi in February, "your project has ended and the amount of antipathy in Egyptians' souls has exceeded any other regime." He added that the military's move against Morsi was driven by fears of civil war.
"Our assessment was that if we reached the stage of communal infighting and civil war, the military will not be able to stand in front of it, or prevent its repercussions," he said.
Since Morsi's fall, officials and allied media have depicted the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies as a threat to the nation, presenting the crackdown against them as a fight against terrorism. At the same time, there has been an escalation of violence by Islamic militants — many from groups allied to the Brotherhood — with massive attacks targeting security forces in the volatile northern Sinai and other parts of the country.
On Monday, nine soldiers and policemen were killed, and attackers fired a projectile at the country's main satellite communications station in Cairo, punching a hole in a giant satellite dish. On Tuesday, militants opened fire on a military post in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, state news agency MENA said, killing a soldier killed and injuring another.
A group calling itself the Furqan Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack on the communications station, describing it as part of an ongoing war between "Sunni Muslims and infidels who intended to uproot Islam from the land of Egypt."
As the interim government moves against the Brotherhood, deadly street violence has continued. On Sunday, more than 50 people — mostly supporters of Morsi opposing the coup against him — were killed in a heavy security crackdown.
On Tuesday, security was so intense around planned pro-Morsi protest sites in and around Cairo university that organizers called them off.
A leading Brotherhood figure in exile, Ibrahim Mounier, denounced the dissolving of the Brotherhood's association, calling it "hasty, illegal and random." Speaking from London, he said the government should have waited for a ruling by a higher court, expected on Saturday, regarding the association's legality.
"This is a big conspiracy against the Egyptian people" he told Doha-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr.
Outlawed for most of 85-year existence — with successive regimes alternating between repression and tolerance — the Brotherhood built its networks largely underground. That made it difficult for authorities to track, since many institutions were registered under individuals' names.
In the aftermath of 2011 uprising that forced longtime president Hosni Mubarak from power, the group founded a political wing — the Freedom and Justice Party, which charged to victory in successive elections. But the non-governmental organization was only founded in March, while Morsi was still in power and the group came under pressure to define its legal status.
The dissolution of the Brotherhood's association may make it harder to track the group's finances and resources, even though little of the broader organization had fallen under its purview.
"This NGO was the first step by the group to become legal," said Amr Rafiq, a senior member of Brotherhood-allied al-Wasat party, many of whose leaders are also imprisoned. "Instead of pushing it to surface, this decision will only force it underground, back to square one."