Egypt’s top generals on Monday gave President Mohamed Morsi 48 hours to respond to a wave of mass protests demanding his ouster, declaring that if he did not, then the military leaders themselves would impose their own “road map” to resolve the political crisis.
Their statement, in the form of a communiqué read over state television, plunged the military back into the center of political life just 10 months after it handed full power to Mr. Morsi as Egypt’s first democratically elected leader.
The communiqué was issued following an increasingly violent weekend of protests by millions of Egyptians angry with Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers. It came hours after protesters destroyed the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo.
In tone and delivery, the communiqué echoed the announcement the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued 28 months ago to oust President Hosni Mubarak and seize full control of the state. But the scope and duration of the military’s latest threat of political intervention — and its consequences for Egypt’s halting transition to democracy — were not immediately clear, in part because the generals took pains to emphasize their reluctance to take over and the inclusion of civilians in any next steps.
For Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, however, a military intervention would be an epic defeat. It would deny them the chance to govern Egypt that the Brotherhood had struggled 80 years to finally win, in democratic elections, only to see their prize snatched away after less than a year.
“We understand it as a military coup,” one adviser to Mr. Morsi said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations. “What form that will take remains to be seen.”
The military’s ultimatum seemed to leave Mr. Morsi few choices: cut short his term as president with a resignation or early elections; share significant power with a political opponent in a role such as prime minister; or attempt to rally his Islamist supporters to fight back for power in the streets.
Mr. Morsi’s adviser said the military should not assume that the Brotherhood would accept its ouster without an all-out battle to defend his democratic victories. The Brotherhood may not “take this lying down,” the adviser said.
Citing “the historic circumstance,” the military council said in its statement that “if the demands of the people have not been met” within 48 hours then the armed forces would be forced by patriotic duty “to announce a road map of measures enforced under the military’s supervision” for the political factions to settle the crisis.
Just what would meet “the demands of the people,” the military did not specify. The rallying cry of the protests that precipitated the announcement was the demand for Mr. Morsi’s immediate departure.
It remained possible, though, that many might accept a less drastic power-sharing measure until the election of a new Parliament expected later this year, especially under military oversight.
But the military council also emphasized its reluctance to resume political power. It has made the same disclaimer at its seizure of power in 2011, but reiterated more vigorously on Monday.
“The armed forces will not be party to the circle of politics or ruling, and the military refuses to deviate from its assigned role in the original democratic vision that flows from the will of the people,” the statement said.
But it also noted that the “political forces” had failed to “reach consensus and resolve the crisis” on their own by a deadline set last week in a statement from the defense minister, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi.
“The wasting of more time will only create more division and conflict,” the statement continued, pledging that the armed forces’ own “road map” would include “the participation of all the sincere national factions and trends.” The general added a special mention for inclusion of “the youth,” who the generals called “the exploders of their glorious revolution.”
Many of the demonstrators now calling for Mr. Morsi’s ouster spent months last year marching to demand that the military give up its hold on power. And at a continuing demonstration outside the presidential palace to call for Mr. Morsi’s exit, marchers had been chanting against both “Brotherhood rule and military rule” when the announcement came out.
But different cheers broke out immediately. “The army and the people are one hand!” protesters chanted, recalling the heady days immediately after the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak when the military was first hailed as a savior.
Many said their protests would continue. “I think it’s late,” said Hassan Ismail, a local organizer. "There has been a lot of blood."
He rejected any compromise that would leave Mr. Morsi in office, and at the same time sought to distinguish the anti-Morsi movement from the military. “We don’t want to be against the army,” Mr. Ismail said. "And we don't want the army to be against us."
The Health Ministry said earlier on Monday that 16 people had died in the protests, including eight in a battle outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, most of them from gunshot wounds. All of those killed outside the headquarters were young, including one who was 14 and another who was 19, the ministry said. One died of heat-related causes at a demonstration outside the presidential palace.
After dawn broke Monday, some demonstrators remained in Tahrir Square, epicenter of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, resting under impromptu shelters. While much of the protest elsewhere in Cairo seemed peaceful, activists reported dozens of sexual assaults on women in Tahrir Square overnight.
The fiercest confrontation seemed to be at the Brotherhood headquarters where members of the organization who were trapped inside fired bursts of birdshot at the attackers and wounded several of them.
After pelting the almost-empty building for hours with stones, gasoline bombs and fireworks, the attackers doused its logo with kerosene and set it on fire, witnesses said, seeming to throw what appeared to be sandbags used to fortify the windows out onto the street.
It was not immediately clear what became of the Brotherhood members, but shortly before the building was stormed, armored government vehicles were seen in the area, possibly as part of an evacuation team.
The scale of the demonstrations, just one year after crowds in the same square cheered Mr. Morsi’s inauguration, appeared to exceed even the mass street protests in the heady final days of the uprising that overthrew Mr. Mubarak in 2011.
Clashes between Mr. Morsi’s opponents and supporters broke out in several cities around the country, killing at least seven people — one in the southern town of Beni Suef, four in the southern town of Assiut and two in Cairo — and injuring hundreds. Protesters ransacked Brotherhood offices around the country.
Demonstrators said they were angry about the lack of public security, the desperate state of the Egyptian economy and an increase in sectarian tensions. But the common denominator across the country was the conviction that Mr. Morsi had failed to transcend his roots in the Brotherhood, an insular Islamist group officially outlawed under Mr. Mubarak that is now considered Egypt’s most formidable political force.
The scale of the protests across the country delivered a sharp rebuke to the group’s claim that its victories in Egypt’s newly open parliamentary and presidential elections gave it a mandate to speak for most Egyptians.
“Enough is enough,” said Alaa al-Aswany, a prominent Egyptian writer who was among the many at the protests who had supported the president just a year ago. “It has been decided for Mr. Morsi. Now, we are waiting for him to understand.”
Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar who studies the Muslim Brotherhood closely, said: “The Brotherhood underestimated its opposition.” He added, “This is going to be a real moment of truth for the Brotherhood.”
Mr. Morsi and Brotherhood leaders have often ascribed much of the opposition in the streets to a conspiracy led by Mubarak-era political and financial elites determined to bring them down, and they have resisted concessions in the belief that the opposition’s only real motive is the Brotherhood’s defeat. But no conspiracy can bring millions to the streets, and by Sunday night some analysts said the protests would send a message to other Islamist groups around the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
“It is a cautionary note: Don’t be too eager for power, and try to think how you do it,” Mr. Hamid said, faulting the Egyptian Brotherhood for seeking to take most of the power for itself all at once. “I hear concern from Islamists around the region about how the Brotherhood is tainting Islamism.”
Mr. Morsi’s administration appeared caught by surprise. “There are protests; this is a reality,” Omar Amer, a spokesman for the president, said at a midnight news conference. “We don’t underestimate the scale of the protests, and we don’t underestimate the scale of the demands.” He said the administration was open to discussing any demands consistent with the Constitution, but he also seemed exasperated, sputtering questions back at the journalists. “Do you have a better idea? Do you have an initiative?” he asked. “Suggest a solution and we’re willing to consider it seriously.”