As for the military's widespread popularity, that too is potentially ephemeral. An essential ingredient in the military's high standing has been its political neutrality, which it would find difficult if not impossible to square with direct rule. Even more challenging would be actually guiding the ship of state, which is going off an economic cliff as the political drama unfolds. Much of Morsy's unpopularity is due to the economic crisis and its various manifestations -- all of which would remain were the military to seize power, and none of which can be quickly resolved.
The military is well aware that it can't count on the loyalty of the crowds that cheered the Army helicopters that buzzed over Tahrir Square Monday, July 1. Among the secular opposition, distaste for military rule is widespread -- and indeed is the very factor that caused many to vote for Morsy in the second round of the presidential election last year when he faced off against his military-backed opponent, Ahmed Shafiq. While the secular opposition would welcome the military pushing the Brothers out of power, such support would quickly dissipate if the military then sought to rule.
The question of "to coup or not to coup" is made even more difficult by the internal politics of the military itself. Sisi, after all, was appointed by Morsy and is himself an Islamist in outlook, as demonstrated by his writings and statements while attending the U.S. Army War College. Under his leadership, the ban on Brotherhood members entering Egypt's military academy has been lifted, and at least one close family member, his nephew, is an activist in the organization. For the armed forces commander, an ignominious collapse of the Egyptian Islamist project -- with its negative ramifications for Arab Islamism more generally -- would be difficult to countenance. Clearly, he would like Morsy and his Islamist supporters to get their act together and provide effective governance.
While Islamism enjoys support within the officer corps, it also has its opponents. More important than political leanings, however, are officers' institutional loyalties and their self-image as ultimate defenders of the nation. Sisi thus risks losing the support of his own officers if he seems to be sacrificing the good of the nation for the cause of Islamists. He can only cut them so much slack before his position becomes untenable.
In sum, Sisi confronts a grave political crisis that could degenerate into profound violence were he to make the wrong move, or perhaps even if he made no move at all. He cannot count on the loyalty of the Egyptian Army if he decides to give the Brothers much more time to come to terms with their opponents and manage the country effectively. And he cannot count on Washington's support if his actions are effectively portrayed as anti-democratic or if they precipitate a breakdown in order. Sisi may seem like he has Egypt in the palm of his hand, but the truth is far different. Pity the man on horseback as he contemplates the challenging ride ahead.