CAIRO — Egypt is facing unprecedented "grave dangers" but its military will protect it, military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said in remarks published Wednesday which appeared aimed at rallying public opinion against protests planned for next week's anniversary of the country's uprising.
Tantawi's comments also seemed to be a thinly veiled warning to the activists behind last year's Jan. 25-Feb. 11 demonstrations that led to the toppling of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak.
The activists are now calling on the military to step down immediately, and accuse the ruling generals of botching the transition to civilian rule, of killing at least 80 protesters since October, of torturing detainees and of hauling at least 12,000 civilians before military tribunals for trial.
Activists plan to stage a wave of protests to mark next week's first anniversary of the start of the uprising. The state-run media has responded with a media campaign warning of a plot to destabilize the nation on the anniversary.
Tantawi's talk of unspecified "grave dangers" facing the nation and of the military's resolve to counter them harks back to the Mubarak era, when officials frequently sought to shift attention away from domestic problems with warnings of conspiracies against the country by local agents of foreign powers.
"Egypt is facing grave dangers it has not seen before," Tantawi said. Calling on Egyptians to foil the "schemes and conspiracies" against Egypt, he said: "The armed forces is the backbone that protects Egypt. These schemes are aimed at targeting that backbone. We will not allow it and will carry out our task perfectly to hand over the nation to an elected civilian administration."
Tantawi, who is in his late 70s, said that the armed forces were "pushed into the political fray only to protect Egypt from the enemies of the nation and people," language that appears designed to counter charges by activists and politicians that the ruling generals planned all along to retain their political leverage and their privileges.
Activists claim that Tantawi and the rest of the generals sitting on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are an extension of Mubarak's 29-year regime and remain beholden to the former president, whose consent was essential to their promotion through the ranks.
Tantawi himself was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, during which he was widely considered to be unquestioningly loyal to his patron.
The military has said it intended to hand over power to an elected president by the end of June, but many suspect the military will not easily give up the political dominance it has enjoyed ever since army officers seized power in a coup nearly 60 years ago.
Critics of the generals say they hope to promote an ex-officer or an ally as a candidate, to shield the military's budget, economic interests and behind-the-scenes political leverage from civilian scrutiny.
Taking advantage of the frustration of many Egyptians following nearly a year of demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes and deadly street clashes, the generals have been trying to publicly discredit the revolutionaries as troublemakers or as agents of foreign powers.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, brought out of retirement in November to take the Cabinet post that runs the police, has warned against what he calls attempts to destroy public property during the uprising's anniversary protests.
The state media has used the loss last month of rare books and manuscripts in a fire in a downtown library during clashes between protesters and troops to portray activists as reckless individuals who destabilize the country.
The army's reputation however has taken a blow from video images of the clashes posted on social networks depicting violence against protesters. They show a woman stripped half-naked while troops kick and stomp her, and soldiers urinating on protesters from the roof of the building of parliament.
But despite those images, activists acknowledge that the army's campaign has largely worked, and that they no longer have the degree of public support which they enjoyed a year ago.