Behind the Egyptian Army's Ultimatum

Giving a warning before launching a coup said a lot about the military's political aims.

The world’s eyes turned again to Cairo’s Tahrir Square last week, as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered to demand the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi. But events took an unexpected turn when the Egyptian army issued an ultimatum giving Morsi 48 hours to meet the people’s demands or face intervention by the military. When the deadline passed without Morsi’s resignation, the army appointed a new president and moved decisively to consolidate control. Even as a timetable for new elections was announced, news emerged that the army had opened fire on a crowd of Morsi supporters, killing more than fifty people and wounding at least four hundred more.

It remains to be seen whether Egypt’s fragile democratic gains will survive this bloodshed and the worsening tensions between the security forces and the Islamist parties. But the path to full democratization is rarely smooth, and reversals and backsliding often precede consolidation. And, as Michael Vatikiotis points out in the New York Times, military intervention is a frequent bump in the road: “For even as military leaders make it possible for unpopular leaders to be removed, they tend to linger in the wings, ready to reassert their power when fragile popularly elected transitional governments fail, as they often do.” The army’s move to depose Morsi is therefore not surprising, given the strength of public dissatisfaction with his administration and the army’s strong incentive to preserve its institutional and economic prerogatives in a post-Mubarak Egypt. What is surprising, however, is the fact that the army issued a warning first.

Why would the army issue an ultimatum to Morsi, telegraphing its intent to carry out a coup, rather than simply seizing power? A public threat destroys the element of strategic surprise. In this case, it gave Morsi’s partisans time to organize (by last Wednesday morning, reports had surfaced that Morsi supporters were arming themselves with makeshift weapons), increasing the likelihood of clashes and the costs of suppression. Given that the army took great pains to secure a bloodless transition two years ago, this is puzzling behavior. Why risk violence now? What did the army expect to gain through its issuance of an ultimatum that offset the (now realized) chance of significant bloodshed?

Answering this question requires an analysis of the ultimatum’s intended audience. On its face, the primary audience of the ultimatum appears to be its target: President Morsi. However, it is not plausible that Morsi would ever have complied. From his perspective, the ultimatum amounted to a demand to step down today, or step down tomorrow—equally unappealing options. The army could not have been surprised when he decided to stand firm. It is therefore unlikely that the true objective of the ultimatum was to induce Morsi to defer to the protesters’ demands for his resignation.

If Morsi was not the intended audience for this ultimatum, then who was? Given the level of international attention focused on Egypt, as well as its geopolitical significance, it is reasonable to think that the army may have been speaking to international audiences. In light of the close links between the Egyptian and American militaries, and the fact that Obama maintained support for Morsi, the army may have been particularly concerned with the United States’ response. Yet the content of the statement does not suggest a focus on American or international audiences. A statement aimed at shoring up international legitimacy would have clearly signaled the army’s unwillingness to contravene the democratic process and would have almost certainly included references to human rights and the rule of law. The statement did neither of these things. In 543 words (as translated), democracy was mentioned only once, and law not at all.

What the ultimatum did reference frequently was the army's historic role as the protector of the “great people of Egypt.” Since the beginning of the uprising two and a half years ago, the army has made a concerted effort to demonstrate its solidarity with the masses and, until very recently, to refrain from using force against civilians. The military may have intended to highlight its continued allegiance to the people and the Egyptian nation as a whole. But if that was the intent, then the choice to employ such a costly signal, sacrificing the element of surprise for the eventual coup, is puzzling. Although protests earlier this year had expressed dissatisfaction with the military, recently the demands had focused solely on Morsi’s removal. The army did not need to use dramatic measures to elicit the support of the protestors.