AFRICANGLOBE – Egypt’s armed forces handed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi a virtual ultimatum to share power on Monday, giving feuding politicians 48 hours to compromise or have the army impose its own road map for the country.
A dramatic military statement broadcast on state television declared the nation was in danger after millions of Egyptians took to the streets on Sunday to demand that Mursi quit and the headquarters of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood were ransacked.
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago as the Arab Spring revolutions took hold, the Arab world’s most populous nation has remained in turmoil, arousing concern amongst allies in the West and in neighboring Israel, with which Egypt has had a peace treaty since 1979.
Mursi’s backers were furious at the military statement: “The age of military coups is over,” said Yasser Hamza of the Brotherhood parliamentary wing.
But it provoked delight among liberal leaders and crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, who cheered when a flight of military helicopters swooped overhead trailing national flags. Silhouetted against the sunset, it was an illustration of the military’s desire to be seen in tune with the people.
“If the demands of the people are not realized within the defined period, it will be incumbent upon (the armed forces) … to announce a road map for the future,” chief-of-staff General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in the statement, which was followed by music.
The people had expressed their will with unprecedented clarity in the mass demonstrations, he said, and wasting more time would only increase the danger of division and strife.
The army said it would oversee the implementation of the roadmap it sought “with the participation of all factions and national parties, including young people”, but it would not get directly involved in politics or government.
Mursi’s office later said the president met Sisi and Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, releasing a picture of them seated together smiling, but did not respond to the military statement.
Anti-Mursi demonstrators outside the presidential palace cheered the army statement, and the main opposition National Salvation Front, which has demanded a national unity government for months, applauded the military’s move. The army is held in high regard, especially after it helped topple Mubarak.
On Cairo’s Tahrir Square, thousands celebrated the army’s move: “We want a new armed forces council to govern until new elections,” said accountant Mohamed Ibrahim, 50. “The army alone supports the legitimate revolutionary will of the people.”
Amr Moussa, a liberal politician and former foreign minister who stood in last year’s presidential election, said: “The invitation to meet the demands of the people within the next few hours is a historic opportunity which should not be lost.”
It was the second time in just over a week that the armed forces had issued a formal warning to the politicians, piling pressure on Mursi to concede power-sharing with the liberal, secular and left-wing opposition.
Analysts said the military intervention could serve Mursi if he wished to compromise, but it risked emboldening his opponents to harden their demands, at the risk of triggering a coup.
“The ultimatum has the ring of a potential coup,” said Yasser al-Shimy of the International Crisis Group think-tank.
“What makes it not a coup is it gives time for the politicians to sort out their differences.”
The second biggest Islamist group in parliament, the Nour Party, said it feared the return of army rule “in a big way”.
The armed forces have played an important role in Egyptian politics since army officers staged the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.
After the destruction of its offices, the Brotherhood which operated underground until the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, said it was considering how best to defend itself.
Sunday’s mass rallies were bigger than anything seen since the Arab Spring uprising. Smaller crowds returned to Tahrir Square and other gathering points on Monday afternoon.
Five non-Brotherhood government ministers tendered their resignations from the cabinet, apparently in sympathy with the protesters, underlining a sense of isolation for the party that won a series of elections last year.
“Both sides are still in their trenches,” a senior European diplomat said just before the military statement.
Eight people died in a night of fighting around the Brotherhood headquarters, where guards fired on youths hurling rocks and fire bombs. A Brotherhood official said two of its members were hurt. Another eight people were killed and 731 injured in clashes around the country on Sunday.
Unknown attackers also firebombed the headquarters of the moderate Islamist Wasat party allied with the Brotherhood. The party called in a statement for dialogue among all parties.
Security sources said security forces arrested 15 bodyguards of Brotherhood deputy leader Khairat El-Shater after an exchange of gunfire with them outside his home. The guards are suspected of illegal possession of firearms used in the shooting at the movement’s headquarters, the sources said.
The Brotherhood’s political wing denied the arrests, saying only Khater’s driver had been “kidnapped”.
The Brotherhood’s official spokesman told reporters that the attack had crossed a red line of violence and among possible responses might be to revive “self-defence committees” former during the 2011 uprising.
“The people will not sit silent,” Gehad El-Haddad said.