CAIRO — Egypt’s military took control of the country Wednesday, suspending the constitution and asking the head of the country’s high constitutional court to lead the nation in a transition period with a government comprised of “technocrats.”
In a somber announcement on national television, the country’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, announced that the military had taken the action because Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, had shown himself unwilling to meet the demands of a fractured opposition that had wanted him to step down.
Morsi “did not meet the demands of the masses,” said el-Sissi, who Morsi appointed minister of defense and commander of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in August 2012.
There was no word on Morsi’s whereabouts. News reports had said earlier in the day that the military had cut off all communication to him. Various statements published online and attributed to him called what happened a “military coup” and urged his supporters to reject the military’s actions.
Cairo’s streets, which had been crowded for three days by millions of demonstrators demanding Morsi’s resignation, exploded in celebration at the announcement.
But among Morsi’s backers the reaction was anger, and there were indications it could give way to violence.
In the Rabaa section of Cairo, a crowd of bitter Morsi supporters sprayed gunfire into the air and pledged to fight to preserve the political gains of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Morsi had risen to prominence and which until Wednesday was considered Egypt’s best organized political group. Many were armed with guns and sticks.
“Jihad is our destiny,” they chanted. “Our revolution is Islamic, Islamic. . . . Don’t worry Morsi, we are all with you.”
Some added, “Blood will drench all the streets of Egypt.”
El-Sissi said the military took the step of removing Morsi after months of trying to persuade him to compromise with his opponents. He said the military’s efforts began in November, after Morsi declared himself exempt from judicial oversight. That declaration sparked demonstrations then.
“The armed forces have made over the past months strenuous efforts, directly and indirectly, to contain the situation and conduct internal and national reconciliation among all political forces, including the institution of the presidency, since November 2012,” el-Sissi said. He said that “all political forces responded, but it was turned down by the presidency in the last moments.”
El-Sissi said the head of the country’s constitutional court, Adly Mansour, would become the country’s acting president and would take the oath of office Thursday. He said Mansour would have the right to rule by decree until a new Parliament was seated. El-Sissi also called for Mansour to set presidential elections soon.
Mansour was promoted to the head of the constitutional court a year ago. He has served on that court since 1992.
The military’s announcement, which came at 9:20 p.m. after a day of tension as people waited to hear what the country’s generals had decided, brought to an end the first democratically elected administration in Egypt’s history. It marked another in a seemingly unending string of tumultuous events in the more than two years since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.
Morsi had said he would not step down and was unwavering to the end. In his last speech as president, he at one point yelled, “I am the president of Egypt.”
In the hours leading up to the seven-minute announcement, the military surrounded roads leading to crowds of Morsi supporters who’d rallied to the president’s calls that they defend him, and there were reports that some top officials of the Muslim Brotherhood had been arrested. But that did not stop the outpouring of emotions within the Morsi camp.
In Rabaa, McClatchy reporters witnessed Morsi supporters brutally beat a man after he identified himself as a journalist. “You are responsible for this!” one man yelled as he struck the 32-year-old man.
Throughout Cairo it was hard at times to differentiate the sound of people celebrating by launching fireworks from those shooting in the air, promising retribution.
Their reactions portended of instability here, despite el-Sissi’s plea that Egyptians “steer away from violence.” For some of Morsi’s supporters, an Islamic vision for the region was at stake.
The turn of events was a dramatic setback for the Brotherhood, which had been outlawed for much of its eight-decade history before the toppling in 2011 – under similar circumstances – of Mubarak.
Morsi was the first Brotherhood official to take power in an Arab country, and his removal from office could only be seen as a setback for an organization that only months ago was considered the premier political group in Egypt.
Immediately after the announcement, police arrested crews from the Brotherhood television channel and other Islamist channels, state news reported. The Brotherhood channel was dark an hour after Morsi’s fall.
While the crowds in Cairo’s streets erupted in jubilation, some of the leaders of the 2011 demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s resignation voiced concern about the direction of events.
“If the military helps in ousting Morsi, I hope they won’t have a direct role as they did before,” said Ahmed Maher, who leads the April 6 Youth Movement and was a key organizer of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations that began on Jan. 25, 2011.
“I am afraid that the January 25 revolution would be forgotten,” he said. “If the upcoming period is not managed well, the remnants could come back.”
Maher’s sentiment captures the contradictions that plague the movement that forced Morsi from office. Morsi, however unpopular he was, was democratically elected, and there were no mechanisms in the country’s constitution that allowed for the military to intervene the way it has. Egypt has no vice president and there was no agreement among the opposition over the role of the military or who should replace Morsi.
In December, a constitutional committee dominated by the Brotherhood hastily passed a constitution that required a two-thirds vote of Parliament to remove the president. But the country’s court had ordered the Islamist-dominated Parliament dissolved, and with promised parliamentary elections never scheduled, Morsi gave himself legislative powers.
While Morsi’s rule was striking for its administrative incompetence, the army’s record during the 18 months it ruled between Mubarak’s resignation and Morsi’s inauguration wasn’t much better. During that time, the country’s economy flattened, the government carried out virginity tests on female protesters and raided 17 democracy promotion organizations, leading to the arrest of 43 people, including 16 Americans.
“They should force Morsi to leave and then leave themselves because they failed in managing the country,” Maher said.
Morsi’s 368 days in office were the only period since 1952 that Egypt’s top leader wasn’t a member of the military or a retired military officer.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef