If Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi lasts another week in office—or even another day—it will be a minor miracle, given the forces now arrayed against him: the nation’s streets filled with more than a million protesters on Sunday; the military is fed up with his administration’s incompetence; and his own Muslim Brotherhood may well decide Morsi is expendable, if the party itself wants to survive. But precisely what and who will replace him in the Arab world’s most populous and powerful country remain open questions, the answers to which will go a long way toward determining the future of the entire Middle East.
Minute by minute, the momentum for change is building in Cairo. Late Monday afternoon, the powerful minister of Defense and head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, bluntly warned Morsi’s government: “We give you the next 48 hours as your last chance to do your duty.” If not, he said, it would be the army’s duty “to put forward a road map for the future instead.” When the crowds in Tahrir Square heard the announcement, they erupted in cheers. “We are behind you to finish the road map!” they shouted. Morsi is scheduled to address the nation at 9:00 p.m. local time (3 p.m. EDT) and tell us what path forward he sees—or has been told to follow.
Many on the ground in Cairo regard this drama as little more than a military coup with well-orchestrated protests giving the army the pretext to make a move. But neither the anti-government demonstrators calling for the army to intervene nor the officers in the high command itself actually want the military to rule. The army’s interests have always been to maintain its independence, its prestige, and its highly profitable industries while avoiding the dirty business of running a nearly ungovernable country with an economy on the verge of implosion.
Robert Springborg at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, an authority on the Egyptian military, says the situation is further complicated by the disarray of the opposition, which has now proved, once again, it can gather people in the street but lacks the organization able to run a government. Springborg believes the military would like the Brotherhood-dominated government to make a host of concessions, including liberalization of the Constitution and opening the way to new elections. “I think Morsi himself is expendable,” says Springborg. “Morsi is now dead weight for them.”
But adding to the complications are possible divisions within the military itself, where al-Sisi is tainted by his past close cooperation with the once-fearsome and now feckless Islamist party.
After President Hosni Mubarak was ousted a year and a half ago by street protests and a military putsch, the Brotherhood initially played a smart game. It was the best-organized opposition organization, and at first indicated an unwillingness to seek the presidency, knowing how thankless that job was likely to be.
But in the end, the Brotherhood could not resist, and the party won the election. In short order, the Brotherhood rammed through an unpopular Constitution, alienated all the rich Gulf states except Qatar, flirted with Iran, and set teeth on edge in Washington, which still supplies Egypt with billions of dollars in aid each year. Most importantly, the Brotherhood failed to turn around the economy. And as it came under more pressure, the Brotherhood grew more aggressive.
Earlier this year, Morsi tried to bring hundreds of thousands of police and security forces under his control by appointing his hand-picked man, Mohamed Ibrahim, to run the Interior Ministry. “Ibrahim is a ham-fisted idiot,” says Springborg. “So they got the guy they wanted and the ranks said ‘No.’” They simply refused to follow his orders. On Sunday night when a mob attacked the Muslim Brotherhood’s party headquarters, the cops just stood aside. “It was fair game,” said Springborg. “What clearer message can you send to the ruling party than to let people in to steal its files and its air conditioners?”
Al-Sisi is also one of this government’s appointees, and he is now in a position where he needs to prove to the rest of the officer corps he’s not really Morsi’s man, says Springborg.
Al-Sisi was in touch with the Brotherhood for months before he was named defense minister last year. “He was their go-to guy,” says Springborg. “They trusted him and they were aware of his political leanings, which were Islamist. Does that mean he was a Brotherhood loyalist? I doubt it. But he had his connections, and he was clearly the Brotherhood’s No. 1 choice.”
As al-Sisi was rising to the highest levels of the Egyptian military, he studied for a year with the Americans at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The papers he wrote there were almost like Islamist tracts, says Springborg, who has read them. “He believes that to understand the Arab world you have to understand that it is Islamic, and that democracy without regard to Islam can never work, and that religious figures have to play a role in any sort of exercise of government.”
Al-Sisi wanted “respect for the military and its privileges and for the country to be more Islamist,” says Springborg. “But the Brotherhood has been so incompetent that any guy with Islamist leanings like al-Sisi would feel that these guys have damaged the project. The Brothers of Egypt have managed to deal a very heavy blow to Arab Islamism, so someone like al-Sisi really has to back away from them. I really don’t think he has a choice.”
The country’s disastrous economy hangs over the whole picture “like a tidal wave,” says Springborg, and the military rank and file is not immune. There is “a lot of discontent within the junior ranks,” he says. “These guys are tied to the street and they don’t want the military to defend an order that the street is not accepting.”
So we may well see a president of Egypt resign in the next few hours or days, but that is not so much the end of the country’s drama as the beginning of a new act.