CAIRO — Egypt’s powerful military threatened on Monday to step in within 48 hours to resolve the political crisis that has pitted President Mohammed Morsi’s opponents against his supporters over months of protests and clashes that have ground this country to a dangerous standstill.
The warning, widely interpreted as a military pledge to stage a coup, stoked fears of violent backlash from Morsi backers and signaled a dark turn in Egypt’s volatile struggle to navigate a path to stable democracy since a popular revolution ended 60 years of authoritarian rule in 2011. A military council ran the country for more than 16 months after the uprising, then retreated to the sidelines as Morsi consolidated power after winning the nation’s first-ever democratic elections one year ago.
The commander of Egypt’s armed forces, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, issued the ultimatum to the government and opposition groups in a televised statement after millions of anti-government protesters over the weekend called for Morsi’s ouster in the largest show of opposition to the president since he took office.
The statement did not make clear whether commanders want Morsi to step down or share power, and it did not specify the kind of role the armed forces would assume if the stalemate continued. Instead, Sissi pledged to impose a “roadmap” forward if the situation is not resolved, leaving considerable room for interpretation.
“If the demands of the people are not met within the given period of time, [the military] will be compelled by its national and historic responsibilities, and in respect for the demands of Egypt’s great people, to announce a roadmap for the future, and procedures that it will supervise involving the participation of all the factions and groups,” Sissi said, calling the coming two days a “last chance.”
Late Monday, after a meeting between Sissi and Morsi, the military published another statement on its Facebook page, denying that it was planning a takeover.
“The beliefs and the culture of the Armed Forces do not allow pursuit of a ‘coup’ policy,” the statement said. The military acts only “with the will of the great Egyptian people and their ambitions towards change and reform.”
Anti-government activists — some of whom were protesting against the generals last year — have called repeatedly on the military in recent days to back their campaign against Morsi and his supporters in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whom they accuse of hoarding power and failing to enact meaningful economic and political reforms.
Many interpreted the military ultimatum as a victory.
“I don’t think anyone wants to deal with Morsi anymore,” said Wael Nawara, a political activist and the co-founder of the liberal Dustour party. “So that effectively means that the military will basically appoint some kind of transitional government.”
Angry crowds of Morsi supporters swelled in Cairo after the military’s statement, and clashes erupted between the president’s supporters and opponents in several cities. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an official inside the presidency said Morsi and his advisers were “certainly . . . reading this as a coup statement.”
Morsi is unlikely to resign willingly, the official said, warning that Egypt could descend into a civil war similar to Algeria’s in the 1990s, which began after that country’s military usurped power ahead of an imminent Islamist electoral victory.
“Everything is possible,” the official said, adding that “certain factions” among the president’s Islamist supporters have been “kind of holding it in, so to speak, in the face of what they perceive to be multiple provocations.”
Anti-Morsi protesters, who packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square for a fourth straight day on Monday, greeted Sissi’s announcement with thunderous cheers. After Sissi, who is also the country’s defense minister, spoke, military helicopters trailing the Egyptian flag flew over Tahrir and downtown Cairo, prompting more celebration.
Across the city at the Islamists’ rival sit-in, Brotherhood politicians and supporters took a steadfast posture in the face of Sissi’s perceived threat.
“Any coup against legitimacy will not pass, except through our necks,” Mohamed al-Beltagi, a Brotherhood member of Egypt’s now-dissolved lower house of parliament, said from a stage outside Cairo’s Rabia al-Adawiya mosque.
Monday is not the first time that Egypt’s top generals have sought to shepherd the nation through a crisis. Egyptians have long been socialized to admire the military, which has remained Egypt’s most popular state institution despite the generals’ management of a rocky transition after President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011.
Mubarak’s top general, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, then stepped in, earning the military widespread accolades as national saviors. But opposition to military rule, particularly among the youth activists who spearheaded the uprising, mounted last year as reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and closed military trials surfaced.
Some observers credited Morsi’s electoral win — against a former military man — as a backlash against months of disappointment under the generals.
But anger at the military has faded in a country beset by poverty where a growing number of Egyptians blame a crippling economic crisis on Morsi.
On Monday, some prominent Egyptian activists acknowledged that they were wary of a military coup, even though opposition groups had advocated loudly for military intervention. Others argued that there was little choice.
“The problem is that our other option is Morsi staying in power,” said Ahmed Maher, the leader of the April 6th youth movement, which helped lead the uprising against Mubarak and later, the protests against military rule.
The appointment of Sissi — the youngest member of the body of commanders that ruled Egypt for 16 months after Mubarak’s fall — to the helm of the armed forces came in a shadowy reshuffle that caught many Egyptians by surprise. Sissi was little known in Cairo when Morsi picked him to succeed Tantawi shortly after taking office, prompting speculation in Egypt that Sissi had Islamist leanings.
Some analysts warned on Monday that any kind of military interference would send Egypt down a slippery slope. “No matter what happens at this point, the military is going to be intervening very directly in the political process,” said Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert and the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
Hamid said he thought the coming days would likely yield a coup or “an effective coup,” whereby the military pressures Morsi into calling early elections. That would set a dangerous precedent, he said, making any future mass protests an opportunity for the military to step in.
Speaking from Tanzania before the military statement Monday, President Barack Obama appeared to distance his administration from Morsi’s. “Our commitment to Egypt has never been around any particular individual or party,” he said. “Our commitment has been to a process.”
Washington has said it would deal with a democratically elected government in Egypt, the president said, but adding, “Although Mr. Morsi was elected democratically, there’s more work to be done to create the conditions in which everybody feels that their voices are heard and that the government is responsive and truly representative.”
Opposition groups called for continued protests Tuesday. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo said it planned to remain closed.
Anti-American sentiments have been on the rise in Egypt in recent months. Morsi’s opponents have accused the United States of being party to a conspiracy to keep Morsi in power. The official in Morsi’s office, speaking Monday, had the opposite interpretation, saying that some in the president’s camp believed any possible coup “would not happen without American tacit acquiescence or outright support.”
On Friday, an American student from Chevy Chase was stabbed to death while watching clashes between the government’s opponents and supporters in the coastal city of Alexandria.
Health officials said that at least 16 people have died in clashes between supporters and opponents of the president since Sunday. Protesters stormed and ransacked the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in the early hours of Monday morning, looting furniture and setting rooms ablaze as police officers looked on.
Before the military’s announcement Monday, five of Morsi’s cabinet ministers submitted their resignations in a show of solidarity with the anti-government protesters, the state news wire reported.
Washington Post special correspondent Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.
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