Egypt is heading for a “dark tunnel”, says the head of its armed forces.

How he and his generals respond to a political showdown in the streets may determine whether its new democracy survives to see the light. The warning at the start of the week from General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi was presented as a wakeup call to the rival factions, President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies on one side, a disparate coalition of liberals and a mass of Egyptians simply frustrated by economic stagnation on the other. But the velvet glove of Sisi’s language, urging politicians to find consensus and avert bloodshed, could not conceal an iron-fist of possible intervention, even if he was widely believed when he said the generals, secure and prosperous in their new role, have no wish to go back to running the country. One thing is clear. The “consensus” Sisi urged politicians to reach this week is absent. A vague offer from Morsi of collaboration was met with disdain from the opposition. So whether the generals step in, with their half million men, US-funded hardware and a 60-year-old sense of entitlement, now depends on how the next few days play out at flashpoints like Tahrir Square and Morsi’s palace in Cairo and on the streets of a dozen other major cities across the country. The numbers on the street will matter. So too will violence. Both sides say they take heart from Sisi’s promise to defend the “will of the people”. For the Islamists, that means the president and government freely chosen in a series of elections at which they defeated a rudderless opposition. But Morsi’s rivals believe they can bring millions more out to demonstrate, especially today, the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, to show that the popular will lies elsewhere much as they did when the Arab Spring uprising of early 2011 persuaded the army that Hosni Mubarak’s days in power were over. Few believe Sisi and a new generation of leaders elevated by Morsi want to grab long-term control in a full coup by a military that is held in high regard by almost all Egyptians. But many of the Islamists’ adversaries, from hardline Mubarak nostalgists to liberal idealists, seem ready to welcome a short-term shove by the

less explicit trigger. probably depends on two potential triggers: The first. While their financial sponsors in Washington have angered the opposition by urging them not to overturn the result of Morsi’s election.could see Morsi obliged to relent: “If the protesters’ numbers exceed those seen during the revolution. “The army has made its position clear: it will not allow violence and won’t stand by if things seem to be getting out of control. could invoke “national security” and a government failure to keep order. The military source who spoke to Reuters said a turnout at opposition protests on the scale of 2011 . the generals who already have troops deployed in the background. Leaders on neither side seemed fully capable of controlling their supporters. then everybody’s position will have to change. Although a petition against Morsi claiming to have 15 million signatures lends weight to anecdotal evidence that many will show up.” one military source told Reuters on Thursday after the opposition rejected Morsi’s overtures. Sisi spelled out explicitly.many millions drawn from across society and prepared to stay on the streets for days or weeks . and how far it might push Morsi. “No one will be able to oppose the will of . the army listened to the voice of the street before. is violence. is how the military may interpret the popular will.army to abort the direction the revolution has taken and give a second chance to efforts to agree an institutional framework to end the polarised deadlock. The second. he added. in ousting Mubarak.” he said. A number of protest movements since the uprising have fizzled out quickly. If there is blood on the tarmac. Whether the army will do so. perhaps gunplay. That cannot be ruled out again.

One source inside one of the domestic security agencies told Reuters this week that many in his organisation were hoping that a .” Veteran commentator Mohamed Hassenein Heikal. not for long.the people.” he added. Anti-Islamist sentiment in the police and other security organs that led Mubarak’s fight against them for decades adds an element of doubt to the government’s ability to staunch the kind of violence that might trigger an intervention by the army. the opposition coalition demands Morsi resign and make way for an interim authority to reset all the rules before new elections. “The two sides’ demands are pretty maximal so I see possibilities for real confrontation. Morsi and his allies in turn accuse many in officialdom. “At least. told a television interviewer the army was concerned at a lack of vision for the future among politicians: “The army will always side with the people.” Few independent observers can assess with much certainty how the showdown between the factions will play out. Both seem unwilling to flinch: Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood insist on their electoral legitimacy and tell opponents just to fight another election in due course. “Whether their will is expressed at the ballot box or in some other way.” Opponents accuse the Brotherhood of feigning interest in democracy while aiming to entrench themselves deep in the state as Mubarak’s people did.” he said. “Even if you have military intervention it’s not clear of what kind or whether it would solve anything. “Significant violence is a possibility. an expert on Egypt’s transition at George Washington University who was in Cairo this month.” said Nathan Brown. who has close ties to the military. and the media. of sabotaging their efforts.

.” Yasser El-Shimy. it will not be to pressure Morsi to resign. but I don’t think a full-scale military takeover is the most likely intervention. “If the army is to intervene.” he said.violent confrontation could bring down Islamist rule: “There’s a battle coming between us and the jihadists. Nathan Brown said an army move that tried to shut the Islamists back out of the system could prove bloody: “If it came to denying the Islamists political power. or call . speak openly of taking up arms again to defend the president. Its leaders. will fight. More state agencies will join us once they see the violence those terrorists inflict . How easily the army could quell violence is also unclear. a movement that spent years fighting the old regime and had ties with al Qaeda. There’s all kinds of other things they could do short of that. Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group in Cairo. the Brotherhood.. They fear a return to army rule would mean prison again for them. “That’s what could be very very nasty . Morsi has relied increasingly on support from more militant Islamists. somewhat supports allegations by Morsi’s government that agents provocateurs from the old regime are behind recent clashes.” he said. “We need to cleanse the country of them.” Such talk. said he believed that the most the army was likely to do was use its strength to force both sides toward the sort of compromise Sisi spoke about in his warning last Sunday: “Even if the protests are massive and there is really bad violence.as they will in the days to come. including Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya.” he said. or death. probably with the support of Al-Gamaa. while impossible to verify how widespread it is. many freed from jail after the revolution.

the weaker civilian institutions will be.” said a senior Western diplomat in Cairo. leaving Egyptian democracy in peril: “It is getting more and more complicated to find a political solution.” Yet those compromises are unlikely to get any easier. especially if more blood is spilt.for presidential elections. “And the more active the army becomes. It will be a loss of legitimacy. but rather to try and make some compromises on the constitution and the government. in order to appease all parties.” — Reuters .

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