A day after millions of Egyptians filled the streets in the capital and around the country in an enormous show of anger at President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's military warned that it will intervene in the crisis if the demands of the people are not met within 48 hours.
The protesters and the opposition see the announcement as a sign that Mr. Morsi will be forced to step down and call early elections. While the ultimatum could potentially be satisfied by a compromise between the opposition and Morsi that does not involve the president's resignation, they have demanded nothing less.
The president's office and the Muslim Brotherhood both canceled planned press conferences tonight, and it remains unclear how the president will respond to the military's demand, or what his refusal to acquiesce to the military's intervention would mean for Egypt.
The military, which took power when former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled by mass protests in 2011, said it would announce a “roadmap” to resolve the crisis and oversee its implementation if the government fails to make the deadline, but said it will not rule or participate in politics itself.
The statement, read on television by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi was welcomed by the political opposition and the crowds who are still present in Tahrir Square and the presidential palace, some of whom yesterday had urged military intervention with chants of “Come down, Sisi, Morsi is not our president!”
Near the presidential palace, protesters beat drums, sang, and chanted in joy, waving flags and hoisting children on their shoulders. In some neighborhoods, drivers honked their horns in celebration. “I'm so happy at the Army's statement. The Army is listening to the people,” says Siham Naguib El Sebai, a grandmother who says she was so excited by the military's statement that she felt she had to come to the palace to celebrate. “We're going to stay here for 48 hours until Morsi leaves. He must go – the will of the people is above anyone else's will.”
When a military helicopter flew low over the crowd, the protesters cheered, as the aircraft glowed green from thousands of green laser pointers reflecting off its surface.
Bringing back military rule
Morsi's supporters would see the president's resignation as a military coup to topple Egypt's first freely elected president. At a mosque where Morsi's supporters have rallied since Friday, the mood tonight was grim and determined.
Many other Egyptians who protested military rule during the transition period will be dismayed to see the military involved in political affairs once again. Yet the majority of the population appears to have confidence and trust in the military.
“Today represents a very public and very assertive intervention by the military in civilian political affairs that might actually be welcomed by most people” because of the failures of Morsi's government, says Yasser El Shimy, Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The hopes during the 25 January revolution for a civilian democratic government are probably not going to be fully realized, at least not in the short term.”
The military ruled Egypt for 17 months after Mr. Mubarak was toppled. In that time, it sent more than 12,000 civilians to military trials, cracked down on civil society organizations and freedom of expression, and stoked xenophobia. Its threat today comes just a year after Egyptians elected Morsi and celebrated the end of military rule.
Yet in his lone year in office, Morsi has alienated many Egyptians. In November, he temporarily gave himself immunity from judicial challenge and used the authority to push a new constitution to referendum, and to appoint a controversial prosecutor general. The move deepened the political polarization, with many in the opposition feeling that he threw aside any attempt at inclusiveness and governed as if he had been elected with a strong mandate when in actuality he won by a razor-thin margin.
Many of the protesters who have gathered to demand his removal say he governs as if the Muslim Brotherhood, not the Egyptian people, are his constituents.
Morsi inherited a dismal economic situation and has taken the blame as prices have risen, the value of the pound has dropped, and gas and power outages have become increasingly frequent. He has also struggled to assert authority over the police, who for decades arrested and tortured Muslim Brotherhood members and have not fully cooperated with efforts to restore security. Together, these issues have brought many Egyptians into the street.
The campaign that called for yesterday's protest, called Tamarod (“Rebel”), also welcomed the military's statement.
“We send our salute to the great Egyptian Army,” said spokesman Mahmoud Badr in a press conference. “The Army has confirmed ... that it favors the people's will for early elections,” he said, adding, “We will not be part of any negotiations” with the president.
The political opposition has also said it will not negotiate with the president. Mohamed Aboul Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said the Army's statement was a “positive step” that will keep protests from escalating into greater violence. At least 16 people were killed in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt yesterday, including eight who were killed when they attacked the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in Cairo and those inside the building shot at the crowd.
Dr. Aboul Ghar said the National Salvation Front, a broad opposition coalition of which his party is a member, will not talk to Morsi, but will consider any concessions presented on his behalf by the Army. He too insisted Morsi must go, though he said the Muslim Brotherhood's party should be allowed to participate in political life if it obeyed the same laws and regulations applied to other parties.
Shrinking room for compromise
Analysts had predicted before the June 30 protests that the Army might use its leverage to force political compromise and quell unrest in the streets. Mr. El Shimy says the optimistic reading of the situation is that “the military is going to force a resolution that allows the maintaining of the constitutional order – even if Morsi doesn't finish his term at least there would be parliamentary elections and new presidential elections soon, as opposed to an outright usurpation of power, which would be the pessimistic reading.”
Yet Shimy says the military's statement gives the opposition incentives to refuse negotiations with the president, decreasing the chances of a compromise. “[The opposition] believes they can get a lot more by holding firm,” he says.
The Muslim Brotherhood canceled a press conference this evening and has not yet released an official response to the statement. Khalil Al Anani, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood at Durham University in Britain, says the group's leaders had deeply underestimated the popular anger at the group and at Morsi. When he talked with them last night, says Dr. Anani, “they were really disappointed, frustrated, and surprised by what happened.”
Anani says that if Morsi is forced out of office, there is a possibility that some of his young supporters may lose faith in the fledgling democracy and turn to violence, having been blocked politically.
“The fear is that if Morsi steps down some of his supporters will be radicalized and turn against the state,” he says.