We are now facing a defining moment in Egyptian history. Analysts are constantly proclaiming defining moments, but this is certainly one.
The Egyptian military has held power since 1952, when Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. From then until the unrest known as the Arab Spring, the military's power went unchallenged. After the fall of Hosni Mubarak and his replacement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — a military junta — it appeared that while Mubarak had fallen, the military regime remained in place. The military held elections and Mohammed Morsi, known as a moderate member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president.
On the surface, this would appear to have meant that power had passed from the military into the civilian hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was unclear whether Morsi, the formal president, held power or the military actually still had control.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
A day after the Gaza cease-fire was signed, Morsi did something unexpected: He suspended provisions of the constitution having to do with the judiciary and replaced Egypt's prosecutor general. He might have felt that in the wake of the Gaza cease-fire, which Egypt was instrumental in negotiating and which appeared to favor Hamas, he now had enough prestige to assert power, neutralize the judiciary and push through a new constitution via referendum.
Whatever Morsi's reasoning, his move backfired. Instead of support, he found himself facing violent demonstrations in various parts of the country that have continued for six days. Unable to put down the demonstrations himself and finding the Muslim Brotherhood party headquarters and other facilities under fire, Morsi charged that the police were not acting to protect him and his followers from the demonstrators. Late on Tuesday, he called on the military to provide protection to the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Mokattam, to which the military responded by saying it is "only loyal to the people and land of Egypt."
The decision to purge the judiciary was clearly intended to undermine the military's residual power. The demonstrators included a range of people, from liberals opposed to a potential clerical regime, Coptic Christians afraid of a Muslim regime and supporters of the old regime. Supporting Morsi were the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Islamist Salafists. Morsi's call for military help does two things. First, it admits that the demonstrations are not going away and that his counter-demonstrators aren't strong enough to suppress them. Second, it is a test of the military to see whether the civilian government can control it and whether the army will protect the civilian government.
And this is why Egypt is now at a critical point. The fall of Mubarak did not answer the question of the future of Egypt's government. Nor was it answered by the election of Morsi. The question of whether the military regime was finished, whether it would support the civilian government or whether it was a power unto itself remained open. It is still open, but it is now going to be answered.
The military's decision to refrain from assisting Morsi suggests that, for now at least, the president does not command the military and the basic reality of Egypt since 1952 remains modified but not ultimately changed. The crisis is not over, though. We must continue to watch the degree to which the military tries to exploit the demonstrations and how it will react if the riots continue to escalate.
Because Egypt remains the most substantial and potentially powerful country in the region, questions remain about the country's long-term relationship with Israel and the United States and the future of Islamist power in the Arab world. A great deal rests on what the military does now.