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Egypt’s Military Gives Ultimatum

Supporters of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi wave national flags and his posters during a rally in Nasser City, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, July 1, 2013. Egypt's powerful military warned on Monday it will intervene if the Islamist president doesn't 'meet the people's demands,' giving him and his opponents two days to reach an agreement in what it called a last chance. Hundreds of thousands of protesters massed for a second day calling on Mohammed Morsi to step down. Arabic reads " Mohammed Morsi for Egyptian presidency. "  (AP Photo/ Amr Nabil)

Supporters of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi wave national flags and his posters during a rally in Nasser City, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, July 1, 2013. Egypt's powerful military warned on Monday it will intervene if the Islamist president doesn't 'meet the people's demands,' giving him and his opponents two days to reach an agreement in what it called a last chance. Hundreds of thousands of protesters massed for a second day calling on Mohammed Morsi to step down. Arabic reads " Mohammed Morsi for Egyptian presidency. " (AP Photo/ Amr Nabil)

Cairo — With millions of Egyptians in the streets demanding the resignation of the country’s first democratically elected president, Egypt’s military council gave President Mohammed Morsi and his opponents 48 hours to resolve their differences or warned it would “intervene.”

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did not say when the deadline began or what would constitute a proper “roadmap” to reconciliation between Morsi and his opponents. Would talks among the president, his Muslim Brotherhood-backed supporters and the fractured opposition suffice? Or would it require a referendum or early presidential election?

Nobody knew. Regardless, on the streets of this nation, many interpreted the military’s six-minute statement, read on state television, as some combination of soft military coup and a referendum on Morsi’s popularity.

Many, however, felt that Morsi’s days as president are numbered; at least five of his ministers resigned, as did a provincial governor. And the streets erupted in cheers, with protesters who a year ago were chanting “Down, down military rule,” celebrating possible military intervention with car horns, fireworks and chants so loud that it was at times deafening.

When Apache helicopters flew overhead, with the Egyptian flag draped beneath, thousands gathered outside the presidential palace roared their approval.

At 7 p.m., state television reported that Morsi was meeting with his minister of defense, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is also the head of the armed forces, and with his prime minister, Hesham Kandil. Morsi’s government announced it would hold a news conference at 9 p.m., though that time slipped.

“The national security now is at serious risk because of the developments in the country. It is our responsibility to fend off those dangers,” a stern voice announced on television, which showed a picture of the Egyptian flag and el-Sissi. “The armed forces had sensed earlier the seriousness of the current situation and the demands of the people. Therefore, it had given all political forces a week to agree and get out of the crises, but the week had passed without any action or initiative, which made people take to the streets with persistence and insistence with their own freedom.”

The statement marked another tumultuous turn of events in what has been more than two years of turmoil, as Egypt transitioned from three decades under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to a contentious 18-month period under military rule to a year under a democratically elected civilian government to a period of uncertainty.

Perhaps the most succinct description of events over the past two years here came in the form of a tweet: “Deja coup.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Morsi ascended to power 366 days ago, said it was assessing the statement and that any coup would violate the constitution, which states the president can only be removed by a legislative referendum. But there is no legislature; Morsi gave himself legislative powers until an election could be held in the fall.

“Any power that refrains from the constitution is representing a call for vandalism and chaos,” Yaser Hamza, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, told the Al-Ahram newspaper.

The military’s statement came after an unprecedented number of Egyptians turned out Sunday at protests timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Some officials’ estimates of the crowds put their number as high as 14 million, or one of every six Egyptians.

While largely peaceful, violence erupted in the late hours of the protests at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo, where eight people died, according to government figures. Witnesses said protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the building and those inside responded with gunfire. Neither the police nor the military intervened.

Another six were killed around the country and 757 were injured, according to Health Ministry statements.

Morsi once enjoyed a 75 percent approval rating, but that fell precipitously to 23 percent over the past year, amid a collapsing economy, a polarized political situation and an Egypt increasingly defined and led by the Brotherhood.

But for all the euphoria on the streets, there was no promise that yesterday’s news could deliver the people’s demand for stability or the hope of an improving economy. Members of the Brotherhood, the nation’s best organized political movement, considered the military statement a usurpation of a legitimate election.

Others remembered that the economy and the political situation were not much better during the 18 months between Mubarak and Morsi, when the military ruled.

Still others felt that another period of uncertainty would do little to bring back investment and tourism in the short run.

Who would follow Morsi were he to resign was not certain. But that uncertainty was better than military rule, some suggested. They note that until Morsi’s election, Egypt’s president for six decades had always come from the military, and that the president and the armed forces had always run the country side by side.

“Morsi has to save himself and save the country and resign,” Ahmed Maher, the leader of the 6th of April Movement, one of the leading forces that toppled Mubarak, told McClatchy. “We don’t want to go through another transitional period under the military’s rule. They have ruined the country.”