- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
In a statement posted to its Facebook page and read aloud on Egyptian state television on Monday, Egypt’s military leaders issued an ultimatum calling for a resolution to the country’s political crisis within the next 48 hours. According to the statement, in the event that the government does not recognize the demands of the protesters — which range from President Mohamed Morsy stepping down to addressing the country’s pressing economic concerns — the military will implement a plan to resolve the situation (what that plan might entail is not specified).
The statement was posted at approximately 4:30 p.m., Cairo time, which would give the protesters and government until Wednesday afternoon to reach an accord. The New York Times notes that it is unclear whether this means the military is calling on Morsy to resign, but the message has been seen by some analysts on Twitter as a threat of a coup d’état. Since the announcement was made, military helicopters flying Egyptian flags have circled Tahrir Square, drawing cheers from the activists below.
— Vivian Salama (@vmsalama) July 1, 2013
The announcement — or warning — carries a strong sense of déjà vu. The two weeks of protests that forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 culminated with an announcement that the president was resigning and passing power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — a decision that came after Mubarak appeared to lose the support of the military leadership. The country’s military leaders then oversaw a year-and-a-half-long transition period, during which they were accused of trying to maintain the military’s vaunted position in the management of Egypt’s national affairs and were frequently criticized for human rights abuses. That transition ended a year ago with Morsy’s inauguration.
Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Center on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, believes that the military is repositioning itself to maintain its political and economic stake in the Egyptian government. "The tone the military has struck up until this moment," he writes on his blog, "is perfectly suited for the officers’ ultimate goal which is, and has been, to salvage what they can from the wreckage of the January 25 uprising and preserve their place in Egyptian society." Cook notes that the military’s top officials are "shrewd political operators" and that the flag-waving overflights are a masterful way to signal solidarity with the protesters, even though the army is primarily interested in protecting its own interests.
Some of the protesters have embraced the military during this latest round of protests and have brought back a chant popular in 2011: "The people and the Army are one hand." Others, wary of the long SCAF-managed transition and the military’s intentions, have received the announcement with unease. The seemingly deliberate ambiguity of today’s statement raises questions about the military’s exact plan — it could be a bluff to force a compromise in the next two days, or it could be much more.