Marines in southern Europe have been placed on alert in advance of huge demonstrations in Egypt scheduled for tomorrow by the opposition to President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government.
The alert comes as an American student was killed in Alexandria while photographing the protests. Andrew Prochter was stabbed to death by a protestor as he stood observing the demonstration. Seven people have been killed in clashes between pro and anti-government protests this week.
The US government is warning against non-essential travel to Egypt:
At least seven Egyptians have been killed and hundreds injured in days of clashes that have fed an impending sense of doom in Egypt. Thousands of Morsi’s supporters and opponents held rival sit-ins in separate parts of Cairo Saturday on the eve of planned, nationwide protests Sunday demanding he leave office.
The violence took a personal toll for the U.S. when Pochter, a student at Ohio’s Kenyon College with a keen interest in the Middle East, was killed Friday in Alexandria.
The college said Pochter was a religious studies major working in Egypt as an intern for a nonprofit education organization. An organizer for the school’s Middle Eastern Students Association, Pochter had hoped to learn fluent Arabic in the spring during a study-abroad program in Amman, Jordan.
Pochter’s family said in a statement that he had gone to Egypt for the summer to teach English to 7- and 8-year-olds and to improve his Arabic.
“As we understand it, he was witnessing a protest as a bystander and was stabbed by a protester. He went to Egypt because he cared profoundly about the Middle East. He had studied in the region, loved the culture, and planned to live and work there in the pursuit of peace and understanding,” the family said.
The State Department urged Americans on Friday to forego all but essential travel to Egypt and moved to reduce the official U.S. presence in the country. Officials said they would allow some nonessential staff and the families of personnel at the embassy to leave the country until conditions improve.
As for the Marines, it is apparent that Obama doesn’t want a repeat of Benghazi:
About 200 combat capable Marines in Sigonella, Italy, and Moron, Spain, have been told to be ready to be airborne within 60 minutes of getting orders to deploy, according to two administration officials.
The units have several V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft that would carry troops and infantry weapons to Egypt to protect the U.S. Embassy and American government personnel and citizens if violence broke out against Americans.
The planned demonstrations are aimed against the Egyptian government.
The officials both emphasized this is contingency planning in advance of the expected demonstrations to ensure American military assets, including rescue forces, can act if needed. In the event Americans had to be evacuated from Egypt and could not get to the airport due to the unrest, there are about 2,000 additional Marines on board three Navy warships in the Red Sea, officials said.
A third official said the decision to keep the warship in the Red Sea was “very precautionary.”
The United States expects Egyptian security forces will be able to protect American assets and personnel. No plans for personnel to leave have been announced, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Friday.
“This is not Libya,” said the third official, alluding to last year’s attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
Not Libya, but Iran wouldn’t be out of the question. Short of sending in the Marines to shoot a lot of civilians, there’s not much that can be done if protestors take our diplomats hostage as the Iranians did in 1979. But depending on the Egyptian police and armed forces to protect Americans is no sure bet. During those demonstrations in Cairo on September 11, 2012, the police stood by as protestors climbed the roof of the US embassy, tore down the American flag, and replaced it with the black flag of al-Qaeda. And since America is seen as one of the major enablers of President Morsi, the opposition may not be disposed to restrain the extremists on their side.
How much trouble is Morsi in? A new poll on his popularity and some ominous words from the man he appointed army chief suggests he may be in for a rocky few days:
When Morsi took office last year, his public approval rating stood at 57 percent, with most saying he and his Muslim Brotherhood party were “a positive development.”
But with the economy in shambles and the electorate increasingly wary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s intentions, a new public opinion poll conducted by Zogby Research Services (ZRS) now rates Morsi’s approval at 28 percent.
Even the general Morsi appointed as defense minister and army chief is warning that the military may have to intervene if the government and its opponents can’t reconcile their differences before massive anti-government demonstrations scheduled next Sunday
The Zogby poll gauged the opinions of 5,029 Egyptian adults between April 4th and May 12th, 2013. It concluded that almost all of the 28 percent voicing approval for Morsi were identified with his Muslim Brotherhood party or other Islamists like the Al Nour Salafi party.
Significantly, the poll indicated more than 70 percent of the electorate are now concerned that “the Muslim Brotherhood is keen to Islamize the state and control its executive powers.”
The defense chief’s warning was pointed and may pose an immediate threat to civilian rule in Egypt:
Few were surprised then when General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the army chief who also serves as defense minister, warned over the weekend that the military was prepared to step in if liberal and Islamist supporters clash violently in next Sunday’s scheduled demonstrations.
El-Sissi said the military would then be obligated to intervene to prevent Egypt from plunging into “a dark tunnel.”
The secular opposition is still weak and unpopular. There is no mechanism in the constitution that would allow Morsi to call for a new presidential election. The only way he’s going to be ousted is in a military coup. This is a possibility that may have been unthinkable a few months ago but is now on the table.
The military enjoys an astonishing 95% popularity. But that would disappear overnight if they attempted a coup. They may not have a choice if Egyptian civil society falls apart under the pressure of a failed economy and fears of the imposition of full Sharia law.