CAIRO — Egypt’s powerful military, sidelined last summer by a newly elected Islamist president, edged back Saturday into a political fray boiling over with tensions between secular forces and a government determined to pass a constitution enshrining a central role for religion.
A military statement warning of “disastrous” consequences should the standoff continue was widely interpreted as pushing President Mohammed Morsi to compromise and meet the opposition halfway over a draft constitution and the near-absolute powers he gave himself.
A direct military intervention to stave off bloodshed would likely enjoy the paradoxical and tacit support, at least initially, of some pro-democracy activists mortified by the authoritarian bent and Islamist ambitions of the freely elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.
Egypt’s military, which had been the nation’s de facto ruler since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup, remains the country’s most powerful institution. But it has kept a low profile since Morsi ordered the retirement of its top two officers in August and canceled a constitutional declaration that gave it legislative powers when parliament’s law-making chamber was dissolved by a court ruling.
The carefully worded statement appeared designed in part to show the military’s growing impatience with the deepening political crisis pitting Morsi and his Islamist supporters against secular and liberal forces, including minority Christians.
It said dialogue was the “best and only” way to overcome the nation’s deepening conflict. “Anything other than that (dialogue) will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences; something that we won’t allow,” it warned. “Failing to reach a consensus,” is in the interest of neither side, it added. “The nation as a whole will pay the price.”
Following its return to the barracks in June after a 16-month stint leading the country after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the military has been busy cleaning up its image and focusing on its core task. Morsi, meanwhile, has since taking office five months ago been going out of his way to assure the generals that he has no intention of meddling in their affairs. The draft constitution hurriedly adopted by Morsi’s Islamist backers also leaves the armed forces as an entity above oversight.
Whether the military wants to return to the messy business of running a nation torn by divisions and beset by political turmoil and chronic economic woes may be doubtful. However, many, in view of Saturday’s statement, see the possibility of a limited and temporary intervention to save the country from civil strife if the need arises.
A Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, said he saw the statement as an expression of support for Morsi, but lamented the military’s return to the political fray. “We don’t accept the interference of the military,” he said.
Mohammed Waked, a prominent activist of the National Front for Justice and Democracy and a veteran of last year’s uprising against Mubarak’s rule, said any attempt by the military to return to power would initially be successful given heightened fear of violence.
“We will oppose it … but there is a larger segment in society now that is willing to accept it more than before,” he added. “It is in Morsi’s hands.”
The military’s role in the ongoing crisis began Thursday with troops sealing off the area around Morsi’s Cairo palace — scene of mass opposition rallies and deadly clashes — with tanks, armored vehicles and barbed wire. Images of elite Republican Guards’ troops surrounding the palace area were the most high-profile troop deployment since the army handed power to Morsi in June.
The troops, however, have been anything but hostile to the opposition protesters in the area, allowing them on Friday to bypass their lines and surge ahead all the way to the walls of the palace, which they covered with anti-Morsi graffiti and banners denouncing the Brotherhood. Protesters also have painted anti-Morsi graffiti on the tanks.
The deployment, however, was received with mixed feelings — underlining the tenuous relations between the two sides and the lingering fear of a return to military rule. Some in the crowd posed with army officers for pictures, as soldiers assured them they won’t let anyone harm them. But others rejected the military’s reassurances, and one female protester shouted to the officers that their tanks had protesters’ blood on them, a reference to a violent crackdown by the military on a protest last year.
Many protesters also heckled a small crowd that chanted “the military and the people are one hand” — a slogan first used by protesters when army troops replaced the hated police on the streets during the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising.
Abdullah el-Sinawi, a prominent commentator close to the military, said Saturday’s statement was a warning to Morsi and his Islamist backers to reach an agreement with their opponents to prevent the country’s security from unraveling.
“We don’t want a coup, and the military itself doesn’t want to return to politics. But if it is forced to interfere to restore security, it will,” el-Sinawi said. “The onus is on Morsi.”
Mostafa el-Naggar, a former lawmaker and protest leader during last year’s anti-Mubarak uprising, speculated that it could not have been easy for the military to issue the statement after the scathing criticism it endured for its running of the country starting from Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 and June this year when it handed power to Morsi, the country’s first civilian and freely elected president.
“It means a return to political life,” el-Naggar said of the statement. “The military is saying it is still here and will interfere when necessary.”