Is Egypt's military about to overthrow an elected president?

Hard to say anything certain about Egypt now. But the military has thrust itself to the center of politics again as the democratic transition falters.

Manu Brabo/AP
An Egyptian girl chants slogans at a demonstration against Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi during a rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Monday, July 1, 2013.

The 48-hour ultimatum issued today by Egypt's unelected military brass comes amid a wave of protests that appear to dwarf the popular uprising that drove Egypt's military-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak from power 27 months ago.

While what happens next is anyone's guess, Egypt is undoubtedly in its most dangerous moment since former President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in 2011. The military is front and center in Egypt's politics once more; the Muslim Brotherhood feels cornered and threatened by what it deems to be counter-revolutionaries; and the crowds in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are demanding something different – but what they want, exactly, is far from clear.

Today Egypt's so-called democratic transition is a failure, with the strongest evidence of that the rapturous crowds chanting their love for the Army and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In January and February 2011, a massive show of street power led SCAF to dump Mubarak overboard. Then came a period of ham-handed military rule, with show trials of activists, organized sexual assault on female protesters (what else to call the so-called "virginity tests" forced on them within weeks of the military takeover?) and the torture of democracy activists like Ramy Essam.

Eventually, the military appeared to back out of politics and reasonably free elections were held, first for a parliament that was packed with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, and then a squeaker of a presidential election that saw the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi narrowly defeat Ahmed Shafiq , a retired Air Force general who served in Mubarak's cabinet for eight years and as his last prime minister.

Since then, the parliament was dissolved by court order, a new Constitution written mostly by the Muslim Brotherhood was rushed through, and many of Egypt's democracy protesters who backed Morsi as the candidate of change over a longtime Mubarak servant have come to rue the choice. Inflation has jumped, government receipts have fallen, and anger over Morsi's failings has swept away Egyptians' anger about decades of authoritarian rule.

Now the canny military is once again the darling of many at Tahrir, who seem to welcome a soft military coup as the best option for the country. Steven Cook, a keen observer of Egyptian politics, marvels at how the generals – with the help of incompetent civilian politicians – have rehabilitated their image.

Of all the arresting images that emerged from yesterday’s mass protests in Egypt, the ones that struck me most were those of military helicopters dropping Egyptian flags down to the crowds below.  The Egyptian commanders have been pilloried for many things in the last two and a half years, but for a group of people who eschew politics and maintain thinly veiled contempt for politicians, they are shrewd political operators.  After the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, sullied the image of the senior officer corps—if not the military itself—the Ministry of Defense is in the strongest position it has been in since February 11, 2011.

...The possibility that June 30 would end in significant bloodshed in Egypt’s streets—beyond the sixteen deaths and almost eight-hundred injuries—also played into an unarticulated strategy on the part of both counter-revolutionary forces embedded within the state and anti-Brotherhood activists to encourage the officers to reset the political system. Both groups believe that a military intervention would fulfill their specific, but diametrically opposed interests.  For those within the state who have been working diligently to undermine the Brotherhood in virtually every way, the goal is the restoration of the old order. For Egypt’s myriad activists who have coalesced in a profound and at times pathological hatred of Morsi, a “do-over” transition would surely improve their electoral prospects. General Abdelfattah al Sisi and his deputies are not so dim-witted as to fall into the trap the political forces have set for them, however.

Cook concludes his piece by writing "this morning General al Sisi is the most powerful man in Egypt. To rule, but not govern…" The accuracy of his comment is borne out by the statement Sisi issued today that brings up the prospect of a coup. It is simultaneously with "the people" and vague enough that it could justify almost any action – or inaction. 

"The armed forces reiterates its call to meet the demands of the people, and it gives everyone 48 hours as a last chance to carry the burden of the ongoing historic circumstances that the country is going through," Sisi said in his nationally broadcast address. "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.”

The "demands" of "the people?" Most Egyptians demand more jobs, better living standards, an end to police brutality, and a more dignified life in their homeland. But they are from a consensus on how to meet those demands. Tens of millions of Egyptians continue to support Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, just as tens of millions of other Egyptians view them as dangerous failures. Some of these are most worried about the Brotherhood's desire to further Islamicize Egyptian society and public life; others are uncomfortable with the neo-liberal economic policies the Brothers favor; and still others merely want a do-over.

It's become a tired cliche to describe Egyptian society as "polarized," but some cliches are useful because they're the best way to describe the reality. The effect of democratic elections, and the legal chicanery that has followed them, has been a breakdown of social trust and further division of society. Opposition forces, from groups that yearn for the stability and heavy-handed governance of the Mubarak era to those who want a real democracy – not just elections, but the trimmings of civil society, separation of powers, and political compromise – have failed to build workable opposition coalitions.

That has left Egypt with two stark choices: The military, or Morsi. At the moment, the military is clearly the more palatable choice for large swaths of the protesters, who have been described as dangerous rabble by Morsi. He says they're the ones standing between the will of the people and its realization, not him. It's not hard to understand why he sees it that way.

The Muslim Brotherhood's offices in Cairo were overrun last night and set on fire by protesters. Similar attacks were carried out in other cities. Did the military, or the police, intervene to protect them? No.

Egypt's politics are sick, and getting sicker. And while the Morsi presidency's singular achievement has been to divide Egypt's people in a shockingly short period of time, the movement he hails from spent 80 years struggling for power in Egypt. That power was delivered at the ballot box, but now it is facing the threat of being removed from power within two days, unless Morsi pulls the unlikeliest rabbit out of his hat in the interim. What will the Muslim Brothehood rank and file do then?

The example of Algeria can't be ignored. In 1992, the Algerian military cancelled elections that the country's Islamic Salvation Front was set to win. That set the stage for a decade of civil war that claimed at least 150,000 Algerian lives and convinced a generation of Islamists in that country that peacefully participating in electoral politics was a foolish choice.

Sisi surely knows this history. But as hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to fill Egypt's streets demanding Morsi irhal ("go!") – just as they did with Mubarak in early 2011 – he appears to have left himself few options.

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