Pity the man on horseback. Egypt's defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is all saddled up, but he knows not where to ride. On July 1, he delivered an ultimatum giving the civilian government 48 hours to "meet the demands of the people" or the military would step in and implement a "road map" for the country's future.
The military's soaring popularity would seem to provide Sisi with sufficient leverage to force the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsy, to bend to his will. The armed forces now boast an approval rating of 94 percent, according to a Zogby poll conducted from April to May. This is a remarkable change of fortune and a high-water mark for the military's popularity: Approval had been in a steady slide following the February 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak as a result of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's clumsy and ill-fated leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). By contrast, support for Morsy has been in steep decline, falling from 57 percent to 28 percent, according to the Zogby poll.
But what does the general plan to do with his newfound leverage? Lest there be any misunderstanding that he aspires to the classic "officer on horseback" role of running the state directly, his spokesperson "clarified" within hours of the July 1 declaration that the military had no intent of seizing power in a coup d'état -- raising the question of how, then, it would implement its "road map" to political recovery. The experience of the SCAF, after all, had carried a clear lesson to the officer corps that direct political action is best left to others.
This ambiguity over the military's precise role and objectives could of course be purposeful, intended to keep its opponents off balance. More likely, however, it reflects Sisi's real dilemma of how to use his powers without undermining them -- and even the country he claims to be saving. The potential costs of a coup, however it is dressed up, are substantial: Egyptians take pride in their country's long history of at least nominal constitutionalism, and a military takeover would be at least a-constitutional, if not outright unconstitutional. No doubt the military high command is concerned that a profound violation of even the rather dubious Egyptian Constitution could come back to haunt it, both politically and legally.
A full-fledged coup would also risk the military's vital relationship with Washington. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been consistent and outspoken in its opposition to direct military rule since Mubarak's fall, even though it has been willing to accept a pretty thin civilian fig leaf. U.S. officials have reportedly warned the Egyptian generals that a military coup could result in the cutting of all U.S. aid to the country.
The military's coercive power is also too blunt an instrument to use in the political arena, especially against those as well organized as the Islamists. The street-level organization of the Muslim Brotherhood alone is now further reinforced by penetration and at least partial control of some state entities, including the Interior Ministry. Unlike in 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his officer colleagues met virtually no resistance when they rounded up Brotherhood activists, the military would certainly face a different situation today. Deploying heavy weapons against civilians would cross so many red lines it is basically unimaginable, while deploying troops would invite myriad problems when the military's civilian opponents are spread over the length and breadth of the country. And the Brotherhood, mindful of its past struggles with the military, would be far more likely to fight back.