x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Morsi opens the door to greater military role

If Morsi cannot find a compromise with opposition groups, he may find that his real enemy is not the mob in the streets, but the ring of tanks that is supposed to be protecting him.

With tanks back on the streets of Cairo, Egypt is again on the precipice. The army has returned to a public role after fading from the scene in August, but what will be that role be? The test of Egypt's revolution in the coming weeks turns on whether the military can be a neutral force for stability that Egypt desperately needs.

Events have moved fast since President Mohammed Morsi granted himself sweeping powers and immunity from judicial oversight two weeks ago. The president has failed to row back from that position, despite the ensuing violence. Many Egyptians who remember the "brief" state of emergency after Anwar Sadat's assassination - which lasted 30 years - are not inclined to take him at his word that his new powers are temporary.

The result is the violence we have seen in the past days, with at least five people killed during clashes in front of the presidential palace on Wednesday. Disturbingly, Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood supporters turned out in force. By failing to rein them in, Mr Morsi acts as if they are his own private rent-a-crowd and he is merely a Brotherhood man, not the president of all Egyptians.

Despite the troubled history - and still-fresh memories of Egypt's military strongmen - it must be the role of the security forces to protect the institution of the presidency and restore order. As the army cleared the streets near Ithadiya Palace yesterday, it was the most public role for the military since top generals retired in August.

The obvious corollary, however, is that the army's renewed role risks whatever gains Egypt has made towards a civilian government. As The National columnist Alan Philps argues today, the draft constitution contains protections of the army's special privileges that might convince the generals to continue to support the present government.

Yet the current unrest gives the generals the opportunity to reassert themselves into Egypt's politics, if they choose. In this, Mr Morsi has erred. The Muslim Brotherhood and the army may be allies of convenience for now, but no one forgets the decades when the Islamists were driven underground and persecuted by the security services.

If Mr Morsi is given the benefit of the doubt, his November 22 decree was meant to break the deadlock. But the consequences have been dangerous, with blood again spilt on Cairo's streets and - for the first time - threats of civil war. If Mr Morsi cannot find a compromise with opposition groups, he may find that his real enemy is not the mob of young people in the streets, but the ring of tanks that is supposed to be protecting him.