As Egypt nears boil, leading religious institution calls for calm

Usually apolitical Al Azhar University encouraged dialogue as major anti-Morsi protests loom. The military is also watching closely.

Hassan Ammar/AP
An Egyptian man sits next to a poster of Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in front the presidential palace in Cairo on Friday. The sign, in Arabic, reads 'June 30, the end of the reign of terror,' a reference to planned mass protests against Mr. Morsi's government.

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Egypt's leading religious institution made an urgent appeal for calm and encouraged the defiant opposition to accept President Mohamed Morsi's calls for dialogue after a member of the Muslim Brotherhood was killed today. But there is little indication that tensions will ease as the country braces for what may be the biggest protests since the revolution that ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak – and brought the Egyptian military onto the streets to restore order.

According to Reuters, Al Azhar University usually keeps itself separate from politics, but today it waded in. "Vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war," a statement from Al Azhar read. Al-Azhar scholar Hassan El-Shafei said the opposition, which plans to hold massive rallies across the country on June 30, should choose dialogue "for the benefit of the nation instead of the insistence on confrontation."

Al Azhar is not the only institution inserting itself into the fray in an attempt to turn down the heat.

The powerful military, which maintains the respect of both government supporters and the opposition, has also made clear that it is willing to step in temporarily, invoking "national security," according to a separate Reuters report.

Earlier this week the head of the armed forces warned that Egypt was headed toward a "dark tunnel."

The warning at the start of the week from General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was presented as a wake-up call to the rival factions, President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies on one side, a disparate coalition of liberals and a mass of Egyptians simply frustrated by economic stagnation on the other.

But the velvet glove of Sisi's language, urging politicians to find consensus and avert bloodshed, could not conceal an iron-fist of possible intervention, even if he was widely believed when he said the generals, secure and prosperous in their new role, have no wish to go back to running the country. 

Few believe Sisi and a new generation of leaders elevated by Mursi want to grab long-term control in a full coup by a military that is held in high regard by almost all Egyptians. 

But many of the Islamists' adversaries, from hardline Mubarak nostalgists to liberal idealists, seem ready to welcome a short-term shove by the army to abort the direction the revolution has taken and give a second chance to efforts to agree an institutional framework to end the polarised deadlock.

Respect for the military is one of the only things that President Morsi's supporters and the opposition have in common. Whether it makes good on its threat to intervene will depend in part on whether there is violence. 

"The army has made its position clear: it will not allow violence and won't stand by if things seem to be getting out of control," one military source told Reuters yesterday, noting that it doesn't seem that leaders on either side can control their supporters. 

Also at play is what the military judges as "popular will," Reuters reports. The military source said that if the size of the June 30 protests rivals that of the 2011 uprising, Morsi will be forced to relent. "No one will be able to oppose the will of the people," he said. "At least, not for long."

Egypt expert Nathan Brown writes in Foreign Policy that the potential for violence and mass protest have made military intervention an "explicit option."

The message from the military leadership in recent months has been clear in its general thrust but generally short on specifics: the military does not wish to take a political role, but it does regard itself as responsible for security of Egypt. That vagueness has likely sprouted from a desire to communicate to the presidency that it needed to improve its governance performance without offering the opposition the incentive to be so disruptive as to provoke an intervention.

Much still remains unclear. What would provoke an intervention? And what would the military do? Military intervention can take many forms -- suppressing demonstrations or violence, imposition of a government of national unity, deposing the president, suspending the constitution, asserting temporary authority -- and since it is not clear that any of these options would solve or even alleviate Egypt's political crisis, it can hardly be taken for granted that the military would intervene. 

But all signs point to escalation, Mr. Brown writes, painting a picture of deep polarization, rhetoric on both sides running at an alarmingly high temperature, and a conflict that has become deeply personal for all involved.

And now attitudes have grown hard indeed. I asked one leading [Morsi-allied] parliamentarian – a figure I have come to respect as level headed, calm, introspective, and patient – whether he thought he wished his side had done anything differently… . He replied with visible anger that not only did he think they would do it all over again but that in fact they will do it all over again if necessary. And when I remarked to a friend in a responsible position that I did not think Morsi would leave office voluntarily, he replied that he thought the Egyptian people would deal with him as Libyans had dealt with Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Calmer language was used in Europe in the summer of 1914.

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