Is Egypt headed for a military coup?


In 2011, Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo and other cities demanding the military give up power and make way for a democratic revolution. This week, they came out again — to demand that the first elected president in the nation’s long history step down. Oh, and this time they have the military on their side.

On Monday, the armed forces gave President Mohammed Morsi 48 hours to reach some agreement with the opposition or face a uniformed takeover to set the country on a different path. Crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square cheered Sunday when military helicopters passed overhead in a show of support for the demonstrators.

The mass protests are a heartening sign that the people of Egypt are not willing to accept the president’s centralization of power in his hands or his party’s vision of a more Islamist regime. Equally welcome is that with the notable exception of an attack on the Brotherhood’s Cairo offices, the rallies were peaceful and festive. It was a show of popular sentiment that the government cannot afford to ignore.

But the army’s response, however appealing to Egyptians disgusted with Morsi, is no solution. It threatens not only to undo the country’s progress toward democracy but invite civil war.

Morsi has been losing popularity at least since late last year, when he asserted his right to act without judicial review and pushed through a new constitution drafted mostly by fellow Islamists. Aggravating discontent is the dire state of the economy, which suffers from high inflation, shortages of electricity and gasoline, and rising unemployment.

There is not much doubt that most Egyptians are dissatisfied with the president’s performance. The central demand for him in the protests? “Leave.” The huge turnouts Sunday put heavy pressure on Morsi to backtrack from his more authoritarian steps — or even bring opposition figures into the government in an effort to bridge the deep rifts he has opened up in Egyptian society.

But the opposition shouldn’t overplay its hand. For the public to demand the removal of the first president elected by the people would be a grave setback for Egyptian democracy. And it would cast doubt on the tenure of the next leader chosen by the people. Better for Morsi’s critics to focus on the parliamentary elections that are supposed to be held this year. That will be a chance to gain a measure of control over which direction the nation takes.

A military coup would be the worst option of all. Secularists who rebel at the regime’s Islamist agenda should have no trouble remembering the dangers of letting the armed forces regain power. The generals may see their interests coinciding with the opposition’s now — but after a coup, they will put the needs of the military first.

Evicting those representing the Muslim Brotherhood would not eliminate the support it has among the people. It would merely push them to pursue their goals by other means. It would not solve the basic problem: the sharply divergent goals of different groups. Finding ways to compromise is the essence of democracy.

What Egypt is experiencing is one of the crises that often confront nations that have thrown off autocratic regimes. It is trying to establish what popular control means in practice, how the elected will respond to the people and how the government can begin to foster prosperity and unity.

It’s often a painful ordeal. But following a revolution with another one is not likely to help. The people of Egypt are entitled to demand a change of course from those they put in charge. The president has a duty to pay heed to their complaints. And the military should let them work it out.