Egyptian military faces moment of truth

We knew it would come down to this eventually.  In the wake of continuing, and perhaps strengthening, demonstrations and protests against his dictatorial decrees, Mohamed Morsi has authorized the Egyptian military to secure Cairo:

Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi, facing street protests over his attempts to push through a new constitution, will soon authorise the armed forces to help police keep order, the state-run newspaper al-Ahram reported on Saturday.

The daily said the cabinet had approved a legal measure under which the armed forces would help “maintain security and protect vital state institutions” and would be given powers of arrest, but did not say when it would be issued.

However, that assumes that Morsi and his cabinet have control over the military.  The military responded to Morsi’s move with a cryptic message that the country needs “dialogue,” perhaps sending a warning shot across Morsi’s bow:

Egypt’s military has warned of ‘disastrous consequences’ if the political crisis gripping the country is not resolved through dialogue.

The military said in a statement read on state TV on Saturday that serious dialogue is the “best and only” way to overcome the nation’s deepening political dispute.

That sounds suspiciously like, “You’re on your own, pal.”  Morsi set off this conflagration with his decision to put himself and his government above the judiciary and legislature, clearly not the kind of government Egyptians had demanded when they marched on Hosni Mubarak.

The military sided with the people then, allowing them to demonstrate and push Mubarak out of office.  Since that time, Morsi has tried to ensure the loyalty of the army by installing commanders favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood, and had been seen as succeeding in that effort.  But that had yet to be tested in the crucible of a popular revolt, and now Morsi faces the same question every struggling dictator ends up asking: Is the military loyal enough to me to shoot civilians in the streets?

The Iranian mullahs got an affirmative answer to that question in the summer of 2009, but the mullahs had been in power for a generation, too.  Mubarak had been in power almost as long, and got a much different answer in 2011.  This response from the Egyptian military makes it sound like Morsi might get the same answer as Mubarak — and that he’s treading on very thin ice now.