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Egyptian military weighs in on unrest

Egyptian riot police guard a gate of the presidential palace amid ongoing protests in Cairo on Saturday. (Associated Press)
Egyptian riot police guard a gate of the presidential palace amid ongoing protests in Cairo on Saturday. (Associated Press)

Statement warns of looming ‘dark tunnel’

CAIRO – Egypt’s powerful military, sidelined last summer by the newly elected Islamist president, edged back Saturday into a political fray boiling over with tensions between secular forces and a government determined to pass a constitution enshrining a central role for religion.

A military statement warning of “disastrous” consequences should the standoff continue was widely interpreted as pushing President Mohammed Morsi to compromise and meet the opposition halfway over a draft constitution and the near-absolute powers he gave himself.

A direct military intervention to stave off bloodshed would likely enjoy the paradoxical and tacit support, at least initially, of some pro-democracy activists mortified by the authoritarian bent and Islamist ambitions of the freely elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.

Egypt’s military, which had been the nation’s de facto ruler since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup, remains the country’s most powerful institution. But it has kept a low profile since Morsi ordered the retirement of its top two officers in August and canceled a constitutional declaration that gave it legislative powers when parliament’s law-making chamber was dissolved by a court ruling.

The carefully worded statement appeared designed in part to show the military’s growing impatience with the deepening political crisis pitting Morsi and his Islamist supporters against secular and liberal forces, including minority Christians.

It said dialogue was the “best and only” way to overcome the nation’s deepening conflict. “Anything other than that (dialogue) will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences; something that we won’t allow,” it warned. “Failing to reach a consensus,” is in the interest of neither side, it added. “The nation as a whole will pay the price.”

Following its return to the barracks in June after a 16-month stint leading the country after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the military has been busy cleaning up its image and focusing on its core task. Morsi, since taking office five months ago, has been going out of his way to assure the generals that he has no intention of meddling in their affairs. The draft constitution hurriedly adopted by Morsi’s Islamist backers also leaves the armed forces as an entity above oversight.

A Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, said he saw the statement as an expression of support for Morsi but lamented the military’s return to the political fray. “We don’t accept the interference of the military,” he said.

Mohammed Waked, a prominent activist of the National Front for Justice and Democracy and a veteran of last year’s uprising against Mubarak’s rule, said any attempt by the military to return to power would initially be successful given heightened fear of violence.

“We will oppose it … but there is a larger segment in society now that is willing to accept it more than before,” he added. “It is in Morsi’s hands.”