A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Earthquake in Egypt: The Army's Statement

June 30 could have turned out in many ways. It could have been a fizzle — it was a Sunday rather than the usual Friday and many didn't have the day off — or a horribly violent explosion. There were too many deaths as it was, and the ransacking of Muslim Brotherhood headquarters was regrettable, but the demonstrators clearly made their point. The turnout, at least based on the photos, seems to have been far greater than at any point during the 2011 revolution. And that seems to have stunned a great many people, myself included.

Though many of the demonstrators were openly hoping for military intervention, today's statement by the Armed Forces and the resignation of a number of ministers suggests that the Morsi regime is crumbling before our eyes. What bothers me is the Army statement. It amounts to an ultimatum, a demand that within 48 hours the political leadership has to find a solution or the Army will. Though the Army again paid lip-service to the idea that it doesn't seek power, it's threat to create a "new road-map" for moving forward (implying perhaps a national unity government of some sort) would at any rate would mean a "Game Over: Restart" on the past two years, with the Army in some sort of tutelary role.

There are some problems with this. Many of those millions who turned out yesterday were, a bit over a year ago, shouting for SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to go back to the barracks. For people who claim to be liberal democrats to yearn for military rule gives credence to those like Husni Mubarak and Omar Suleiman who long claimed Egypt was not ready for self-government.

Make no mistake. The Muslim Brotherhood has been singularly incompetent and we may be seeing a dimming of its reputation. Many of its Salafi allies declined to stand with it yesterday. (And in a perhaps related event, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi has returned to Egypt from Qatar amid gossip that the new Amir, Sheikh Tamim, asked him to leave.) There are now suggestions Morsi may agree to a referendum on new elections. (Link is in Arabic.) He may have realized (or been told by someone in uniform) that he has lost a sort of no-confidence vote even in the absence of a parliament.

But there is a danger here. The Brotherhood, despite Morsi's squeaker victory, feels that it did win the elections. If the military takes that away from it, Egypt's Islamists of all stripes could feel their victory has been stolen from them. Does anyone remember Algeria in 1992? And the civil war which folllwed? Tunisia's Rached Ghannouchi has taken a much more pluralistic approach than Morsi has, and has openly said it is because he fears an Algerian scenario.

It would be far better for Morsi to get the message and agree to new elections before the Army's 48-hour deadline has run out. The downside of the Army ultimatum is that it removes any incentive for the protesters to cut a compromise deal with Morsi: they can do nothing, and let the Army sort things out. And the Army can again claim to have saved Egypt. But I suspect most (not all, of course) of the demonstrators are not all that nostalgic for the return of SCAF.

I suspect we are going to see a very interesting, and perhaps rather dangerous, 48 hours ahead.

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