It’s not often that we see a military leader encouraging people to demonstrate in the streets, but then again, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi isn’t just a military leader.  He conducted a coup against the elected government in Egypt, a very popular coup against a very unpopular president — at least at that time.  A few weeks later, the Egyptian people may be losing their enthusiasm for the military-led interim government, or perhaps it’s just that their opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood may be a little more motivated after the coup.  Al-Sisi went on TV to ask Egyptians to pour out into the streets to counter the enduring presence of his opponents:

Al-Sisi, speaking at a military graduation ceremony carried live on state TV, exhorted Egyptian citizens “to go down to the streets to give the army the referendum to take firm action against violence and terrorism”

“The army and the police will secure the protests all over Egypt,” said al-Sisi, who is also the interim defense minister. “We will never retreat when it comes to the proposed road map of the political transition.”

He made his remarks amid ongoing protests by pro- and anti-Morsy demonstrators.

Dozens of people have been reported killed and thousands injured since Morsy’s ouster, some of them in confrontations with authorities and others in clashes with those on the other side of the political spectrum.

Fighting on Monday and Tuesday between Morsy supporters and opponents left 14 people dead and dozens injured, state media said, citing the Health Ministry. A bombing at the Nile Delta city of Mansoura on Tuesday night wounded 11 police officers and one civilian.

Usually, armies in these situations take control because of the threat to public and national security posed by demonstrations that can easily turn into widescale riots.  If al-Sisi needs to escalate the street confrontations, that suggests that he sees a greater danger in from the Brotherhood’s street activities, if left unchecked. Essentially, the coup turned the tables on al-Sisi; now he’s the establishment and the Brotherhood is once again off the hook for any responsibility.  If the new government doesn’t fix the problems of hunger and poverty quickly, the Brotherhood’s going to be able to take advantage of the political situation and perhaps overthrow the coup.

That’s why al-Sisi needs to keep the pro-coup side from retreating from the street engagements.  If nothing else, the conflict and violence that results gives the army a pretext for continuing its exercise of power against the Brotherhood. Speaking of which, McClatchy reports that witnesses to the shooting that killed more than 50 outside of Republican Guard headquarters earlier this month tend to back the pro-Morsi side of the story:

The military’s version of events says pro-Morsi protesters tried to storm the Republican Guard headquarters, where Morsi partisans think the deposed president is being held, and that security forces turned to live bullets only after they’d fired warning shots, blank rounds and tear gas to no effect.

Protesters say they were simply praying when an unwarranted attack began.

The stories of nine occupants of the apartment buildings whom McClatchy interviewed seem to back the protesters’ version of events, even though many of those residents said they had little sympathy for Morsi and had grown frustrated with the protesters’ constant chants, which had gone on for days.

Among them is a 24-year-old soldier who painfully conceded that the military “used excessive force” as he recalled the initial sounds he heard. The soldier, whom McClatchy isn’t identifying for his security, said he thought the military was fed up with protesters and that the shooting reflected that. …

The residents said they didn’t hear crowds charging or screams from the military for protesters to move back until after the initial burst of gunfire; the military said all those things happened before anyone had fired a shot.

Nor did the residents recall seeing or hearing protesters praying, as Morsi supporters claimed.

What they do remember is being awakened suddenly, just before 3:45 a.m., by a burst of gunfire so powerful that they think it could have come only from the military. It wasn’t until after the shots began that they heard security forces urging people to move back.

This matters in terms of international engagement with the interim government.  If the military can keep control of the situation without excessive force, the US and the rest of the West will be able to justify continuing engagement with Cairo’s military-backed leaders.  If more of these incidents occur, it will look as though the military is brutally suppressing dissent to the coup, and al-Sisi’s hard-currency resources will dry up at the worst possible time.  The Muslim Brotherhood awaits that moment, which means that the military had better step up its internal discipline fast.