Despite Ultimatum, Outright Army Coup in Egypt Unlikely

The generals probably don’t want to depose the government and be held accountable for its failures.

A tank in the streets of Cairo, Egypt, February 3, 2011
A tank in the streets of Cairo, Egypt, February 3, 2011 (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

Egypt’s armed forces issued what seemed an ultimatum on Monday when they urged the government of President Mohamed Morsi to meet the “people’s demands” within 48 hours. However, they are unlikely to stage an outright coup on Wednesday.

While the army vowed to announce a “roadmap” and unspecified “measures” by Wednesday, it also declared that it “will not be a party to the circle of politics or rule.” The Reuters news agency reported on Tuesday that among such measures could be the suspension of a new constitution that was approved in a referendum last year but rejected by secular Egyptians and the dissolution of parliament which is dominated by members of Morsi’s Islamist party.

Despite mass demonstrations in Alexandria, Cairo and Egypt’s other major cities on Sunday and Monday and the resignation of six of his cabinet ministers, Morsi has rejected calls to resign.

A slim majority of Egyptians elected Morsi in presidential elections last year but dissatisfaction with his Muslim Brotherhood’s economic mismanagement and attempts at desecularization have brought millions of Egyptians to the streets again, two years after a similar uprising prompted the army to force longtime president Hosni Mubarak to step down.

The army might prefer to keep the president in power this time, H.A. Hellyer argues in Foreign Policy magazine, if only to placate “any violent Islamist backlash.” But he will likely be forced to make concessions to defuse the situation on the street: “he may have to announce a cabinet that essentially renders him a lame-duck president.”

The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle agrees. Rather than deposing Morsi and taking power themselves, which would make the generals accountable for the nation’s lackluster economic performance, he predicts that the army chiefs will “dictate a new arrangement for a transitional authority,” one that includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Behind the political façade, however, the army will end up running Egypt’s economy, according to Garfinkle, to the extent that it isn’t already. “Because, the way it’s been made path dependent on a gigantic dirigiste bureaucracy since Nasser’s time, no one else can.”

Egypt’s economy has been crippled by the political unrest. Since the Islamists took power in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012, respectively, the Arab nation’s trade deficit has widened, food and fuel shortages have grown more dire, investment and tourism have dwindled while the government is expected to post a deficit equivalent to 11.5 percent of gross domestic product this year.

Despite Egypt’s deteriorating economic prospects and the seemingly major political changes it has underwent, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook points out that “the military remains the ultimate source of power and authority in a system that was not actually overturned when Mubarak sought refuge in Sharm el-Sheikh during what seems like another era.”

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