CAIRO // Mohammed Morsi has no choice but to call a new presidential election after the head of the military warned that political strife is pushing Egypt to the brink of collapse, a leading pro-democracy activist said yesterday.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was jailed with Mr Morsi during the Mubarak regime for criticising the government, said the president was no longer a tenable head of state.
"The only option left is to announce early presidential elections," said Mr Ibrahim, head of the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies. "But the problem is that the Muslim Brotherhood have been waiting for more than 80 years for the opportunity to take power. They fear if they give an inch, it will lead to the end of their political existence."
Even support from the military appeared to be tenuous yesterday. Col Gen Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, head of the armed forces, warning Mr Morsi that "the continuation of the struggle of the different political forces … over the management of state affairs could lead to the collapse of the state".
An early election is possible because the new constitution ratified by a referendum in December specified new roles and responsibilities for the president, he said.
After six days of street battles, a death toll of at least 50 and growing dissatisfaction with the government, the president's options for calming the situation are dwindling.
Col Gen Al Sisi, who is defence minister and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said the army would remain "the solid and the cohesive block" on which "the foundation of the state rests".
His comments were all the more remarkable because two years ago, as the Mubarak regime struggled to regain control of the country, the military distanced itself from the presidency and eventually took power when Mubarak resigned after 18 days of protests.
The army ruled Egypt for one and a half years, when they were criticised by protesters for ineptitude and heavy-handed governance. However, there was growing unhappiness in the military with Mr Morsi's handling of the situation in recent months, said Sameh Seif Al Yazal, a retired army major-general and an adviser to Scaf.
The opposition, led by the National Salvation Front, has refused Mr Morsi's calls for dialogue unless he appoints a unity government and suspends the constitution. The Front has also said it will boycott parliamentary elections in April.
That would leave the president with the possibility of a legislature dominated by Islamists, cementing the impression that his supporters were taking over all arms of the government and casting doubt on his mandate.
The anger fuelling clashes and protests over the past several days comes from a range of sources: the sentencing to death of 21 men for their role in a football riot last year in which 79 people died, the worsening economic situation and fears that the Muslim Brotherhood is taking over all elements of the state and restricting freedoms.
The president's supporters have argued that he had no control over the judges in the Port Said football case and blamed the economic problems on decades of neglect by the Mubarak regime and two years of tumultuous democratic transition. But many Egyptians, fuelled by deeply partisan newspapers and media, have come to see the president as responsible for the state of disarray and believe that he is ultimately taking orders from the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, not the Egyptian people.
Mr Ibrahim, of the Ibn Khaldun Centre, said he got along well with Mr Morsi in Tora Prison but believed that he was foremost a devoted soldier of the Brotherhood.
"He's a decent fellow, a good engineer," he said. "But at the end of the day, he is not the president for all Egyptians. He's basically an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has been socialised for 30 years to listen and obey commands from the Supreme Guide."
Mr Ibrahim said it became clear to him in conversations in his centre with members of the Brotherhood that its secretive strategising was carried out by older officials who were not reconciled to the transparency and consensus-building needed for a successful political party.
"What stops any compromise is this feeling that they have been building up to this for decades," he said.
"All the arrests of their members, the secrecy, the struggle, were for the chance to show they could run the country. They will not give up power easily."