Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 | 4:02 p.m.
CAIRO — Struggling to quell street protests and political violence, President Mohammed Morsi is moving to impose a version of martial law by calling on the armed forces to keep order and authorizing soldiers to arrest civilians, Egyptian state media announced Saturday.
If Morsi goes through with the plan, it would represent a historic role reversal. Before the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year, Egypt's military-backed authoritarian presidents had spent six decades warning against the threat of an Islamist takeover and using martial law to hold onto their power. Morsi, a former leader of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, and many of his fellow Islamists spent months in jail under those decrees for their opposition to the government.
A turn back to the military would come just four months after Morsi managed to pry political power out of the hands of the generals, who refused for months after his election to allow him full presidential power.
The flagship state newspaper Al Ahram reported that Morsi "will soon issue a decision for the participation of the armed forces in the duties of maintaining security and protection of vital state institutions." The military would maintain its expanded role until the completion of a referendum on a draft constitution next Saturday and the election of a new Parliament expected two months after that.
The announcement of impending martial law would represent the steepest escalation yet in the political battle between Egypt's new Islamist leaders and their secular opponents over the Islamist-backed draft constitution — a standoff that has already threatened to derail Egypt's promised transition to a constitutional democracy.
Calling in the army could overcome the danger of protests or violence that might disrupt the planned referendum on the constitution and the election of a new Parliament to follow. But resorting to the military to secure the vote could undermine Morsi's efforts to end the political crisis threatening his rule if it delegitimizes the new charter as an expression of national consensus and a vote of confidence in him.
Although the plan would not fully suspend the civil law, it would nonetheless have the effect of suspending legal rights by empowering soldiers under the control of the defense minister to try civilians in military courts.
There was no sign of military tanks in the streets Saturday evening, but the military appeared for now to back Morsi. Soon after the news of Morsi's plans, a military spokesman read a statement over state television that echoed the reports of Morsi's planned decree.
The military "realizes its national responsibility for maintaining the supreme interests of the nation and securing and protecting the vital targets, public institutions, and the interests of the innocent citizens," the spokesman said, emphasizing the "sorrow and concern" over recent developments and warning of "divisions that threaten the state of Egypt."
''Dialogue is the best and sole way to reach consensus that achieves the interests of the nation and the citizens," the spokesman said. "Anything other than that puts us in a dark tunnel with drastic consequences, which is something that we will not allow."
Morsi's relationship with the military has been fraught since he was elected president in June in Egypt's first free vote for president. The generals at first had sought a continuing role in Egyptian politics — in part their supporters argued, as a safeguard against an Islamist takeover.
But after taking office Morsi spent months courting the generals, sometimes earning the derision of liberal activists for his public flattery of their role. In an August decree, he relied on the backing of some top officers to remove the handful of generals who had insisted on maintaining a political role. And then last month, despite the protests of the same activists, the new Islamist-backed draft constitution turned out to include protections of the military's autonomy and privileges within the Egyptian government, suggesting an understanding between the two sides that may now come into effect.
Under the president's planned martial law order, the defense minister would determine the scope of the military's role, Al Ahram reported. Military officers acting as police officers would be authorized "to use force to the extent necessary to perform their duty," the newspaper said.
The move would cap an extraordinary breakdown in Egyptian civic life that in the last two weeks has destroyed almost any remaining trust between the rival Islamist and secular factions, beginning with Morsi's decree on Nov. 22 granting himself powers above any judicial review until the ratification of a new constitution.
At the time, Morsi said he needed such unchecked power to protect against the threat that Mubarak-appointed judges might dissolve the constitutional assembly. He used his decree to try to give the assembly a two-month extension on its year-end deadline to forge consensus between the Islamist majority and the secular faction — something liberals have sought.
But his claim to such unlimited power for even a limited period struck those suspicious of the Islamists as a return to autocracy. It recalled broken promises from the Muslim Brotherhood that it would not dominate the parliamentary election or seek the presidency. And his decree set off an immediate backlash.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters accusing Morsi and his Islamist allies of monopolizing power have poured into the streets. Demonstrators attacked more than two dozen Brotherhood offices around the country, including its headquarters. And judges declared a national strike.
In response, Morsi's Islamist allies in the assembly stayed up all night to rush out a draft constitution this month over the boycotts and objections of the secular minority and the Coptic Christian church. Then, worried that the Interior Ministry might fail to protect the presidential palace from sometimes-violent demonstrations outside, Morsi turned to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to defend it, resulting in a night of street fighting that killed at least six and wounded hundreds.
International experts who monitored the constituent assembly's work say that before the crisis, the Islamists and their secular foes had appeared close to resolving their differences and uniting around a document that both sides could accept. Even the draft charter, ultimately rushed out almost exclusively with Islamist support, stops short of the liberals' worst fears about the imposition of religious rule. But it leaves loopholes and ambiguities that liberals fear Islamists could later use to empower religious groups or restrict individual freedoms. The secular opposition has likened it to the theocracy established by the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Morsi's political allies, in turn, accuse their secular opponents of seeking to scrap democracy because the Islamists won.
Morsi's advisers say he has tried to offer a series of compromises to calm the streets. He has declared an end to his expanded powers after next weekend's referendum even if the constitution is rejected. And on Friday night, government officials opened the door to a delay in that vote so that the constituent assembly can make further amendments, if secular opponents would agree to the terms.
But Morsi's Islamist allies also say they are convinced the secular opposition is negotiating in bad faith and in fact seeking to topple the president— the main chant of the protesters outside his palace. Equally dubious of Morsi's willingness to compromise, his secular opponents are insisting that he revamp the constitutional drafting process before they sit down for any talks.