Egyptian army warns of intervention as unrest spirals

The Arab Spring has turned to a bitter autumn in Egypt, as unrest grows over the authoritarian rule of the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government in Cairo.  Opponents of the regime plan widespread protests next week in an attempt to wrest back the momentum of reform from Mohamed Morsi and his regime.  As both sides prepare for a momentous confrontation, the Egyptian military sent out a warning yesterday that it will intervene to prevent the collapse of Egypt — but for which side was that warning intended?

Egypt’s army chief warned on Sunday that the military is ready to intervene to stop the nation from entering a “dark tunnel” of internal conflict.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi spoke a week ahead of mass protests planned by opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. There are fears the demonstrations calling for Morsi’s ouster will descend into violence after some of the president’s hard-line supporters vowed to “smash” them. Others declared protesters were infidels who deserve to be killed.

El-Sissi’s comments were his first in public on the planned June 30 protests. Made to officers during a seminar, they reflected the military’s frustration with the rule of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president who completes one year in office on June 30.

When first reported yesterday, the warnings sounded as though they were aimed at Morsi’s opponents.  Morsi has had enough time to co-opt the military’s leadership, and it was more or less assumed that he’d have worked to do that immediately. El-Sissi himself is a Morsi appointee, filling the roles of both military leader and defense minister. However, that co-opt project has apparently been left incomplete, and Morsi might regret that as well as the El-Sissi appointment.

As CBS points out, the clash may be in part the fault of Morsi’s allies.  The Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps emboldened by their success over the last couple of years, has recently made a series of comments about the military that the latter perceived as insults.  As a result, El-Sissi has focused his attention not on defense from outside attack — a very unlikely scenario anyway — to preserving internal stability.

That makes El-Sissi a very consequential player in the drama about to unfold over the next week. The Egyptian military played the role of kingmaker for decades before Morsi’s arrival, and in this case they may well decide to act in the tradition of their Turkish counterparts, but for practical rather than ideological reasons.  Morsi can’t afford to remove El-Sissi at this point, nor can he afford to ignore him, which means that Morsi may have to start accommodating his opposition more than the Muslim Brotherhood might want or tolerate.

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