On Monday, the Egyptian army issued an ultimatum of sorts for President Mohamed Morsi, giving him and other political factions 48 hours to resolve the crisis caused by two days of massive anti-government protests.
The army said it would step in to issue a “road map” for the way forward if the “people’s demands are not met.”
Its language was vague, and an army spokesman insisted that the ultimatum was not tantamount to a coup. Still, the statement seems to suggest major political developments in the next few days.
Many analysts and political figures in Egypt say this is the most likely scenario. The army does not want to retake power, and in a second statement issued on Monday, it insisted that it would not be part of the country’s leadership.
Behind the scenes, though, it is clearly negotiating with the president and with other political forces. A government adviser said on Monday that Morsi has been negotiating various scenarios with the army. Resolving the crisis, at this point, would seem to require at the very least a call for early presidential elections; simply shuffling the cabinet and appointing a new prime minister would not assuage public anger.
The military has been talking recently with members of the opposition, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the National Salvation Front, the largest formal opposition bloc. The group issued a statement on Monday praising the army’s ultimatum and calling for Morsi’s ouster. It has been largely irrelevant to this week’s protests, which were organised by a grassroots campaign, but analysts say a member of the bloc could emerge as the army’s preferred candidate and run in early elections.
If Morsi does not step down or announce early elections, the army faces a choice. It could decide to depose the president and take power for another transitional period.
The problem with this scenario is that the officer corps does not have fond memories of the last transitional period, when the army took power for 16 months after former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Widespread human rights abuses and a lack of progress towards the goals of the revolution - “bread, freedom and social justice” - tarnished the army’s image.
Egypt’s military has long been ideologically hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, and no doubt many within the organisation would be happy to see Morsi leave. But analysts say the army leadership, headed by the defence minister, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will be cautious about deposing Morsi. A military takeover could prompt an angry reaction from Morsi’s supporters, leading to worsening street violence.
If Morsi refuses to back down and the army decides not to directly intervene, Egypt seems headed for a protracted period of political deadlock.
The formal opposition does not have a large support base, and it cannot bring hundreds of thousands of people off the streets. It has also refused any dialogue with the president, suggesting that some kind of broad-based “unity government” is unrealistic. Nor would it be enough: Protesters want Morsi’s resignation, and any concessions short of that (or early elections) seem unlikely to suffice.
This seems the least likely scenario, because political stalemate and continued protests would create insecurity and further woes for Egypt’s troubled economy. The military does not want to be left to pick up the pieces.