Egypt’s military has jumped into the political crisis between President Morsi and the secular opposition. In a statement read over TV, the army made it clear that opposition to Morsi’s power grab must evolve along the lines of “legitimacy and the rules of democracy”and that only dialogue would solve the crisis.
Deep rifts have emerged over the destiny of a country of 83 million where the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of military-backed one-man rule led to a messy army-led transition, during which the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies won two elections. Many Egyptians crave a return to stability and economic recovery.
The spokesman for the main Islamist coalition demanded that the referendum go ahead on time on the constitution drafted by an Islamist-led assembly from which liberals had walked out.
The army, which ran Egypt for months after Mubarak fell in February 2011, again cast itself primarily as the neutral guarantor of the nation. A military source said there was no plan to retake control of the country or its turbulent streets.
“The armed forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus,” the statement said. “The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe and that is something we will not allow.”
The instability in Egypt worries the West, especially the United States, which has given Cairo billions of dollars in military and other aid since it made peace with Israel in 1979.
The army might be pushing the opposition to join dialogue and Mursi to do more to draw them in, said Hassan Abu Taleb of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
He discounted the chance of direct military intervention, adding: “They realize that interfering again in a situation of civil combat will squeeze them between two rocks.”
However, the military did seem poised to take a more active role in security arrangements for the December 15 referendum.
The army also called on Morsi to scrap the order that places his decree above judicial review and postpone the referendum on the Islamist constitution scheduled for December 15. Such a move would no doubt convince the opposition to join talks on the crisis, but Morsi has given no indications that he will back down.
Meanwhile, the state media announced that Morsi was set to give the army broad powers of arrest in the wake of a massive protest on Friday that broke through barricades surrounding the presidential palace:
If Mr. Morsi goes through with the plan, it would represent a historic role reversal. Before the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year, Egypt’s military-backed authoritarian presidents had spent six decades warning against the threat of an Islamist takeover and using martial law to hold onto their power. Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, and many of his fellow Islamists were jailed under those decrees for their opposition to the government.
A turn back to the military would come just four months after Mr. Morsi managed to pry political power out of the hands of the generals, who refused for months after his election to allow him full presidential power.
The flagship state newspaper Al Ahram reported that Mr. Morsi “will soon issue a decision for the participation of the armed forces in the duties of maintaining security and protection of vital state institutions.” The military would maintain its expanded role until the completion of a referendum on a draft constitution next Saturday and the election of a new Parliament expected two months after that.
If Morsi goes ahead with the referendum with the military in charge of security, it won’t do much to legitimize his rule with the opposition. Some political parties have already called for a boycott of the referendum — the opposition is bound to lose it anyway — and having the military on Morsi’s side only complicates any future talks.