CAIRO – Wading into an increasingly volatile fray, Egypt’s military on Sunday gave the nation’s Islamist rulers and their opponents a week to reach an understanding before planned June 30 opposition protests aimed at forcing out the president, in a toughly worded warning that it will intervene to stop the nation from entering a “dark tunnel.”
The powerful military also gave a thinly veiled warning to President Mohammed Morsi’s hard-line backers that it will step in if the mostly secular and liberal protesters, who have vowed to be peaceful, are attacked during the planned demonstrations.
In a bid to project a business-as-usual image, Morsi’s office said in a statement late Sunday that the president met with the army’s chief, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to discuss the “domestic scene and the government’s efforts to maintain the security of the nation and the safety of its citizens.” There was no mention of el-Sissi’s warning.
Seeking to assert Morsi’s seniority over el-Sissi — the president is the supreme commander of the armed forces — the brief statement, alluding to June 30, said he ordered the quick completion of plans to protect the state’s strategic and vital installations.
The opposition argues that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, despite having won a series of elections since the 2011 revolution that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, have squandered their legitimacy with heavy handed misrule. It contends that the Islamists have encroached on the independence of the judiciary, sought to monopolize power, and pushed through an Islamist-backed constitution, breaking promises to seek consensus.
Morsi’s supporters say the opposition has shunned his offers of dialogue and now are turning to force to remove him because they have been unable to compete at the ballot box.
On Sunday, a court compounded Morsi’s troubles by saying members of his Muslim Brotherhood conspired with Hamas, Hezbollah and local militants to storm a prison in 2011 and free 34 Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi. Also, the most iconic youth figure of the 2011 revolution, Wael Ghonim, called on Morsi to step down before June 30 to prevent bloodshed.
Both sides say they intend to be peaceful on June 30, but many fear the day could descend into violence. There are worries young protesters could attack offices of the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice party. Some of Morsi’s hard-line supporters have vowed to “smash” the protests or have declared protesters infidels who deserve to be killed.
“Those who will spray Morsi with water will be sprayed with blood,” warned one cleric.
El-Sissi, weighed in with his first public comments on the planned protests while addressing officers at a seminar Sunday.
It was his most direct warning yet that the military — which ruled Egypt directly after Mubarak’s fall until Morsi’s June 30, 2012 inauguration — could step in.
He said the country’s divisions had reached a point that they were a danger to the state itself.
“Those who think that we (the military) are oblivious to the dangers that threaten the Egyptian state are mistaken. We will not remain silent while the country slips into a conflict that will be hard to control,” he said in his comments, made public on the military’s Facebook page.
Ostensibly, el-Sissi addressed both sides. But his demand for “genuine reconciliation” seemed to be a nod toward the opposition’s stance that Morsi’s past gestures of “dialogue” have been empty and a signal to him that he must make compromises.
“It is the most powerful public and direct message from the military to the president,” said analyst Abdullah el-Sinnawi, thought to be close to the military. “I see this as a warning of a coup if Morsi does not find a solution.”
Another analyst, Gamal Abdel-Gawad of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies, said the comments signaled a change in the military’s position.
“We are in a different phase now. He (el-Sissi) is giving a deadline for a solution to the president to do what he can do or else they will be forced to intervene,” he said.
El-Sissi appeared to lower the threshold for what warrants intervention by the military. In earlier pronouncements, he cited the collapse or near collapse of the state.
On Sunday, however, he said the military has a “patriotic and moral responsibility” to stop Egypt from “slipping into a dark tunnel of conflict or internal fighting.” He said sectarian violence and the collapse of state institutions would also justify intervention.
He urged all parties to reach a “genuine reconciliation” to defuse the crisis before June 30.
“We have a week during which a great deal can be achieved. This is a call that is only motivated by love of the nation, its presence and future,” he said.
In a thinly veiled warning to Morsi’s hard-line backers, el-Sissi said: “It is not honorable that we remain silent in the face of the terrorizing and scaring of our Egyptian compatriots. There is more honor in death than watching a single Egyptian harmed while the army is still around.”
El-Sissi also warned that the military will no longer tolerate any “insults” to the armed forces and its leaders, apparently a reference to a series of comments by figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, that were perceived by the military as derogatory.
After its post-Mubarak period of direct rule, the powerful military has largely stayed out of the political fray. Soon after his inauguration, Morsi pushed the military’s top two generals into retirement, ending the de facto military rule of Egypt that dates back to a 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy.
Morsi appointed el-Sissi as military chief and defense minister, leading many to believe the general would be beholden to the president. But el-Sissi, through a series of subtle but telling hints, has shown a significant level of independence as well as displeasure over the policies of the Morsi administration.
Morsi’s comrades in the Brotherhood have made it clear that they want the military to focus entirely on protecting the nation against outside threats, but el-Sissi has countered by making clear that maintaining the security and stability of the nation was part of the military’s mandate.
Protest organizers say they will bring out crowds across the country, building on public anger over a host of problems in the country, from surging crime and rising prices to fuel shortages, power cuts and unemployment. The protests call for Morsi to step down and early elections to be held at the end of a short transitional period.
Sunday, another prominent figure from the anti-Mubarak uprising, Ghoneim, weighed in with a video posted on his Twitter account saying it was time for Morsi to go.
“I was hoping that I would thank (Morsi) for what he has done for Egypt a year after he took office. But regrettably, the conditions in Egypt now are very grave,” Ghoneim said. “Please stop the strife we are approaching, for the sake of God and country, and resign before June 30.”
The report issued by a court in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia added to Morsi troubles. The court statement read by judge Khaled Mahgoub named two members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood as among the conspirators along with Hamas and Hezbollah members in an attack on Wadi el-Natroun prison on Jan. 29, 2011.
The judge said his court would refer the evidence and testimonies it gathered to prosecutors so they can start their own investigation.
Morsi and the 33 Brotherhood leaders who were in jail in 2011 have maintained that they were freed by local residents. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Brotherhood, has denied involvement in the attacks on prisons.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party said Sunday’s court statement on the Wadi el-Natroun prison break was “void and illegal.” It posted on its Twitter account that Mahgoub “will end like any other judge who did not respect the law or the constitution.”
The prison breaks took place during the 18-day popular uprising that toppled Mubarak’s regime. The breaks involved about 11 of Egypt’s 41 prisons and led to a flood of some 23,000 criminals onto the streets, fueling a crime wave that continues to this day.
Associated Press reporter Maggie Michael and Tony G. Gabriel contributed to this report.