CAIRO — Egypt’s top generals on Monday gave President Mohammed Morsi 48 hours to respond to a wave of mass protests demanding his ouster, declaring that if he did not, the military leaders would impose their own “road map” to resolve the political crisis.
The ultimatum prompted vows from the president’s Islamist allies to take to the streets to stop what they called “a military coup.”
The military communiqué, read over state television, echoed the announcement that preceded the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak two chaotic years ago. But instead of soothing the volatile standoff between Morsi’s opponents and his supporters, the generals seemed to add to the uncertainty that has paralyzed the state, decimated the economy, and brought millions into the streets Sunday demanding the president step down. It was not clear what the military meant when it said Morsi must satisfy the public’s demands, what it might do if that vague standard were not met, and who would be able to unite this badly fractured nation.
The generals did, however, open a new confrontation with Morsi’s allies in the Muslim Brotherhood with its threat to impose a political “road map” on the president. The Brotherhood members rallied in half a dozen cities to denounce the threat of a military takeover, a reminder that the group remains a potent force unwilling to give up the power it has waited 80 years to wield.
“We understand it as a military coup,” one adviser to Morsi said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential negotiations. “What form that will take remains to be seen.”
Morsi and the military’s top officer, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, entered a delicate negotiation Monday, one fraught with risks for both men, and for the nation. Facing fuel shortages, dwindling hard currency reserves, and worries about its wheat supplies, Egypt urgently needs a government stable and credible enough to manage difficult and disruptive economic reforms. A move by the military to force the Brotherhood from power, despite its electoral victories, could trigger an Islamist backlash in the streets that would make stability and economic growth even more elusive.
President Obama called his Egyptian counterpart late Monday, Morsi aides said. They described Obama’s message as a confirmation that the White House was continuing to deal with Morsi as Egypt’s elected president and to support the country’s transition to civilian democracy. Obama administration officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
In a sternly worded statement issued after 1 a.m. Tuesday, Morsi’s office said it was continuing with its plans for dialogue and reconciliation with its opponents. Noting that it was not consulted before the military made its statement, Morsi’s office asserted that “some of its phrases have connotations that may cause confusion in the complicated national scene” and suggested it “deepens the division between the people” and “may threaten the social peace no matter what the motivation.”
Earlier, speaking to a crowd of Islamists armed with makeshift clubs and hard hats at a rally in Cairo, a senior Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Beltagy, called on the crowd to defend Morsi’s “legitimacy” as the elected president. “No coup against legitimacy of any kind will pass except over our dead bodies,” he said, dismissing the latest protests as “remnants” of the Mubarak elite.
At a late night rally for Morsi across the Nile in Giza, Mohamed Fadala, a financial manager, argued that Sisi appeared to have considered only the non-Islamist half of Egypt. “Sisi ignored half the people!”
The generals have shown little enthusiasm for returning to politics, especially after their own prestige was badly tarnished by the year of street violence and economic catastrophe they oversaw after ousting Mubarak. But as the protests against Morsi grew larger than those that pushed out Mubarak, it became clear that Morsi had lost the support of much of the population and has never fully controlled the security services or other institutions of the state.
Protesters faulted him and his Brotherhood allies for what they called a rush to monopolize political power. And in public squares that just a year ago echoed with chants demanding an end to military rule, cheers rose up again Monday welcoming the generals’ help in pressuring Morsi.
Citing “the historic circumstance,” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said in its statement Monday that “if the demands of the people have not been met” within 48 hours then the generals would “announce a road map” to be “enforced under the military’s supervision.” But the generals insisted that under its auspices “all political factions” would participate in settling the crisis.
The “demands of the people” appeared to refer to the rallying cry of the wave of protests: a call for Morsi’s immediate departure. The generals, however, did not elaborate, leaving open the possibility that they might accept another power-sharing arrangement. “The wasting of more time will only create more division and conflict,” the statement warned.
Still, the generals were also eager to disavow any eagerness to return to political power. “The armed forces will not be party to the circle of politics or ruling, and the military refuses to deviate from its assigned role in the original democratic vision,” the generals insisted.
They had made a similar pledge when they took power two years ago, but as the Islamist pressure grew Monday night the generals issued a second statement specifically denying that they planned a “military coup.”
“The conviction and culture of the Egyptian armed forces doesn’t allow following the policy of ‘military coups,’ ” the statement declared, though it was a military coup that brought Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser to power 60 years ago. “The armed forces’ statement was intended to push all political parties in the nation to find solutions to the current crisis quickly.”
The Interior Ministry, whose police officers have been in open revolt against Morsi, issued its own statement endorsing the military’s intervention — another reminder of the breakdown in authority over the holdover institutions of the Mubarak government.
“The security apparatus announces its full solidarity with the armed forces’ statement out of keenness on the national security and the higher interests of Egypt and its great people,” the Interior Ministry statement declared.
Egypt had been bracing for weeks for Sunday’s day of protests against Morsi on the anniversary of his inauguration. But the turnout surprised almost everyone: The crowds were far larger — running into the millions — and less violent than expected. The result not only underscored the depth of the animosity against Morsi but also dispelled Brotherhood arguments that a conspiracy of Mubarak “remnants” accounted for most of the opposition in the streets.