x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Egyptian army gives 48-hour ultimatum to Morsi

Cheers in Tahrir Square as Egypt's powerful military promises its own road map for future if president fails to reach a deal with protesters. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

Egyptian women react to the military's 48-hour ultimatum for President Mohammed Morsi and opposition leaders to reach an agreement.
Egyptian women react to the military's 48-hour ultimatum for President Mohammed Morsi and opposition leaders to reach an agreement.

CAIRO // Egypt's powerful military yesterday gave Mohammed Morsi a 48-hour deadline for "the people's demands to be met" as massive protests calling for the president to quit continued for a second day.

The military did not refer specifically to Mr Morsi and "put everyone on notice", but the tone and language of their statement put them clearly on the side of the "great people of Egypt".

The army said it would unilaterally announce a "road map for the future" if the situation is not resolved within its deadline.

The statement was read out live on television by the defence minister, Gen Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, and watched by tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

The crowds erupted in cheers and chanted pro-military slogans moments after the broadcast, which they saw as a victory in their bid to unseat Mr Morsi just one year after he took power in the the country's first democratic elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Morsi's Islamist backers, said they were studying the army statement and their political bureau would meet to "decide on its position".

The first cracks in Mr Morsi's administration appeared last night when the ministers of tourism, environment, communication and legal affairs all resigned.

After a week of rival protests in which at least 14 people have been killed and hundreds injured, the military's intervention dramatically increased the pressure on Mr Morsi to make concessions or leave office.

Millions of people filled squares and streets on Sunday night, the anniversary of Mr Morsi's inauguration. Some observers said the numbers exceeded those in the protests that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The military did not say what exactly a new "road map" would entail, but there is no doubt that Mr Morsi and his Islamist supporters are facing their biggest crisis since rising to power last year.

In the early hours of yesterday, protesters burnt and looted the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in the Cairo neighourhood of Mokattam. Other Brotherhood offices across the country have met the same fate over the past week, inspiring comparisons to the torching of Mubarak's National Democratic Party headquarters during the 2011 protests.

Security forces yesterday arrested 15 armed bodyguards of the Muslim Brotherhood's deputy leader Khairat El Shater after an exchange of fire.

The shootout took place when security forces went to arrest the guards for alleged unlawful possession of firearms they are suspected of having used to shoot at protesters attacking the Brotherhood's headquarters.

For weeks, the president's supporters have said the planned protests were the product of liberal propaganda and conspiracies from remnants of the Mubarak regime that were designed to turn the country against its first elected president. A senior Brotherhood official even suggested that counter demonstrations in support of the president might be bigger.

The president and the Brotherhood appeared caught off guard by the sheer size of the protests against them.

Late on Sunday, Mr Morsi's spokesman Omar Amer appeared surprised by the developments and renewed calls for dialogue.

"Groups who have demands must sit down to dialogue," he said. "We must stress that the issue of dialogue is not mere rhetoric as some claim it to be. The president has continuously said that he wanted everyone to listen to his initiative with the aim of holding serious national dialogue."

The National Salvation Front, an umbrella opposition group, responded with a call to protesters to "maintain their peaceful rallies in all the squares and streets and villages and hamlets of the country … until the last of this dictatorial regime falls".

The military's intervention yesterday recalled the 2011 uprising, when army top brass played a crucial role in pressuring Mubarak to resign. Though troops were ordered into the streets by Mubarak, the army refused to clash with protesters and instead created protective barriers around their gathering spots. The move - together with forceful statements by Gen Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, made without consulting the president - provided a powerful boost to the uprising.

When Mubarak stepped down, he handed power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a group of top generals. But they quickly lost the image they had built up during the 18 days of protests by cracking down on new protests and mishandling the country's political transitions. Analysts have pointed to the Scaf's mistakes as the origin of problems with elections and the writing of the constitution.

One of Mr Morsi's first controversial moves was to force several of Scaf's top generals to retire after failing to prevent an attack by militants on border soldiers in August 2012.

As anger grew against Mr Morsi's handling of the country, especially after he attempted to place his decisions above judicial review and rushed an Islamist-dominated constitution to vote, opposition groups softened on the military. Calls for them to force Mr Morsi out of office became more frequent starting in the spring, culminating in the latest protests with pro-military chants and placards saying "the people, the army and the police are one hand".

bhope@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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