Egypt’s Perilous Countdown: Why Morsi May Lose the Presidency

Massive protests and a military ultimatum have left the Muslim Brotherhood with few options

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Nariman El-Mofty / AP

Opponents of Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Morsi wave national flags during a protest outside the presidential palace in Cairo on July 1, 2013

Egyptians awoke on Tuesday morning to the ticking of a countdown clock. Weeks of back-and-forth brinksmanship between President Mohammed Morsi and a revitalized grassroots opposition demanding his immediate ouster have culminated in a two-day window for Morsi to rescue his presidency.

The clock started on Monday evening when Defense Minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi announced on television that the military had decided to “give everyone 48 hours as a last chance to shoulder the burden of the historic moment” and heal the national rifts on display. Failure to do so would force the army to “announce a road map for the future and the steps for overseeing its implementation, with participation of all patriotic and sincere parties and movements.”

(PHOTOS:  History Repeats As Protesters Demand Morsi’s Ouster)

The announcement may have marked the death-knell of the Morsi presidency. “There’s no scenario where I can envision Morsi emerging from this actually able to lead and govern,” said Michael Hanna, an Egyptian-American senior fellow with the Century Foundation. “He’s crippled – and I think that was the case before the army announcement.”

Massive nationwide anti-Morsi protests – with crowds equaling and even exceeding the absolute peaks of the 2011 revolution that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak – have amounted to what the opposition considers the end of Morsi’s right to legitimately govern.

Morsi and his backers in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood seem to be increasingly backed into a corner with dwindling options. Each passing hour has seemingly brought a new setback. Overnight, Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamal Amr joined the growing list of cabinet members to resign. And even the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party, which partnered with Morsi’s government through much of 2012, has called for Morsi’s early departure and fresh elections.

Brotherhood and presidential officials have gone largely silent in the wake of the army announcement, saying very little in public but labeling it a “coup” in off-the-record comments to reporters.

A statement released by the presidency after 1am said the army should have consulted Morsi before making its move and said the President continues to pursue his own national consensus-building efforts. “The Presidency confirms that it is going forward on its previously plotted path to promote comprehensive national reconciliation,” the statement declared. “Egypt will absolutely not permit any step backward whatever the circumstances.”

Those Brotherhood officials who have spoken publicly have worked to put a conciliatory and reasonable face on the situation. Abdel Mawgoud Dardary, a spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, told CNN late Monday night that Morsi “did make some mistakes. He recognizes the mistakes he has made.” Dardary even offered praise for the military and expressed faith that, “the army is likely to play an honest broker for the political forces.”

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Much like the crowds that drove Mubarak from power more than two years ago, the current wave of anti-Morsi demonstrators sprung up independently of existing opposition forces. The Tamarod (Rebel) grassroots campaign, which started a petition calling for Morsi to resign, tapped a national nerve and reached many citizens who remained uninspired by opposition politics. Opposition political leaders like Mohammed El Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who are frequently at odds and have struggled to build support for themselves in significant numbers, will surely play a role in whatever comes next, but none of them has enough power to strike a deal that would send the protestors home but leave Morsi as president.

While the anti-Morsi crowds exploded in euphoria Monday at the thought of a military intervention to end Morsi’s presidency not everyone would welcome the soldiers back with open arms. The 15 months Egyptians lived under the control of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the group of generals that ran Egypt after Mubarak was toppled, bred just as much animosity and bad blood as Morsi’s year in office. Last week, socialist activist Wael Khalil called the return of the Egyptian military to politics, “a nightmare scenario.” But on Tuesday morning he seemed more willing to give the military a chance.

“I’m still worried about it,” Khalil said. “But their statement was clear. They specifically said they’re not going to govern. So maybe they’ve learned this time.”

Brotherhood decision-making (a famously opaque and mysterious process) becomes absolutely crucial now. Several activists and analysts here speculated that the 48-hour window was actually meant to be a Brotherhood cooling off period – giving the organization a chance to assess the realities, accept that Morsi cannot remain president and then somehow sell that retreat to their cadres. The alternative to that might just be an escalating and armed confrontation that could greatly damage the standing and future political prospects of the Islamist group.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center, predicted that the Brotherhood decision-makers would be influenced by memories of 1954, when escalating tensions with young revolutionary leader Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser resulted in mass arrests, public trials and extra-judicial killings of Brotherhood members that drove the organization underground.

“There are definitely leaders in the Brotherhood who remember 1954,” Hamid said. “Maybe they were young at the time but they don’t have to read it in a book. It’s their own personal history.”