For Egypt’s military, there’s no turning back

Facing ultimatums from opposition and army, Morsi finds himself weaker than ever

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative photo of Egyptian Military helicopters, Cairo, Egypt, Monday, July 1 (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)
Illustrative photo of Egyptian Military helicopters, Cairo, Egypt, Monday, July 1 (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

Just hours after publishing an unequivocal statement that put it firmly on the opposition’s side, Egypt’s military, late Monday night, issued a second announcement in which its leaders attempted to regain a more neutral position.

“Military coups are not part of our ideology,” the later message said. “The published statement was meant to push the sides towards an agreement… We have no plan of taking power into our own hands.”

The military’s late attempt to paint itself as an impartial broker between the secular and Islamist camps failed to sound convincing, however, especially when juxtaposed with the photo that may become the icon for the next revolution, of air force helicopters hovering over Tahrir Square with Egyptian flags dangling from them.

The sight of the helicopters, with the setting sun in the background, enthused the crowds on the ground who could only glean one thing from the display: the military had thrown down the gauntlet.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more dire threat to a democratically elected president. The military, in its initial statement, decided to grant President Mohammed Morsi (and the rest of the political system) a 48-hour ultimatum to reach understandings with the opposition, “as a last chance to shoulder the burden of the historic moment.”

If the demands are not realized in that time, the military said it would be obliged to “announce a road-map for the future and the steps for overseeing its implementation, with participation of all patriotic and sincere parties and movements … excluding no one.”

While the wording of the statement was vague, it was not vague enough. The opposition’s demands are clear– the removal of Morsi. The only compromise that may be in the cards is the cancellation of the pro-Islamist constitution and, perhaps, the dismissal of Prime Minister Hesham Kandil.

However, the millions who swarmed Tahrir Square and those who amassed opposite Ittihadiya palace will not accept anything less than Morsi’s resignation, especially in the face of such a clear threat from the military.

In the meantime, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are digging their heels in and don’t show any willingness to compromise. They may still meet with opposition representatives in the day and a half before the ultimatum expires, but the gaps between the sides seem too deep to overcome. Still, in this era of Egyptian revolutions, a last-minute compromise is not an impossibility.

Morsi, who just a few days ago seemed to convey confidence in a public address, found himself on Monday night weaker than ever. Eleven Cabinet ministers as well as members of Parliament and regional governors have submitted their resignations. Belief that Morsi will survive is dwindling, especially in light of the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are still swarming to Tahrir Square.

He has two guns to his head now: one held by the opposition, whose ultimatum will end at 5 pm Tuesday, and one held by the army, whose ultimatum expires Wednesday afternoon. Protest groups have already announced that if the president isn’t out by 5 pm, they will announce a general strike that will bring the country to a standstill.

What will the military actually do when it’s 48-hour ultimatum to Morsi expires? Not much it seems. The chances of a military coup seem slim at the moment. It may be that as part of their promised “Road map” the army will demand Morsi take steps for appeasement or even leave office. If he doesn’t comply, the army may simply carry on its current policy of letting the protesters do as they like, including attacking regime institutions.

In such a scenario, Morsi may even turn to the army himself, requesting to be saved.

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