Egypt's top general holds the fate of the country in his hands, but even the Army may not be able to restore order in Cairo.
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.
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.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images