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Egypt's military signals impatience with president

Wednesday - 2/20/2013, 10:46pm  ET

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012 file photo, Egyptian army soldiers stand guard during a demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt’s powerful military is showing signs of growing impatience with the country’s Islamist leaders, criticizing their policies and issuing thinly-veiled threats that it might seize power again. The tension is raising the specter of another military intervention in politics much like the one in 2011, when generals ousted longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak to end the 18-day popular uprising. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's powerful military is showing signs of growing impatience with the country's Islamist leaders, indirectly criticizing their policies and issuing thinly veiled threats that it might seize power again.

The tension is raising the specter of another military intervention much like the one in 2011, when generals replaced longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak after they sided with anti-regime protesters in their 18-day popular uprising.

The strains come at a time when many Egyptians are despairing of an imminent end to the crippling political impasse between President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group on one side, and the mostly secular and liberal opposition on the other.

The tug of war between the two camps is being waged against a grim backdrop of spreading unrest, rising crime and a worsening economy.

"In essence, the military will not allow national stability or its own institutional privileges to come under threat from a breakdown in Egypt's social fabric or a broad-based civil strife," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert from the New York-based Century Foundation.

"This is not an ideological army or one that seeks to destabilize civilian governance. ... But it is also not an army that will sit by while the country reaches the tipping point on the path to civil strife."

The latest friction began when a rumor circulated that Morsi planned to replace Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, his defense minister and the army chief, because of his resistance to bringing the military under the sway of the Brotherhood-dominated government.

El-Sissi may have angered Morsi last month when he signaled the military's readiness to step in, warning that the state would collapse if no solution was found to the political crisis. Pointedly, he also spoke of how the military faces a dilemma in marrying the task of protecting state installations in restive locations with its resolve not to harm peaceful protesters.

In another provocative comment earlier this month, el-Sissi was quoted as saying he would never allow the armed forces to be dominated by the Brotherhood, or any other group, stressing the military's national identity.

A Brotherhood spokesman, Yasser Mehrez, dismissed claims that the group sought to bring the military under its sway. "This is old talk that has been repeated over and over again," he said.

The rumor about el-Sissi's dismissal was widely suspected to be a trial balloon floated by the Muslim Brotherhood to gauge military and public reaction.

The military did not officially respond. But widely published comments attributed to an anonymous military source threatened that any attempt to remove the military's top commanders would be "suicide" for the government and spoke of widespread anger within the armed forces.

The source was quoted as saying the public will not accept any meddling in the military and will close ranks to counter any pressures or challenges.

The military distanced itself from the comments on a statement posted on its official Facebook page. But the situation was deemed serious enough for Morsi's office to issue a statement late Monday that appeared aimed at calming the military.

It reassured commanders of the administration's appreciation of the armed forces and said the president had confidence in el-Sissi.

But the statement, which blamed media for spreading "lies and rumors," may have done little to ease the tension.

"The two sides may be publicly dismissing reports of tension, but the army is making it very clear to the presidency that any attempt to dismiss el-Sissi would backfire," said military analyst and retired army Gen. Mohammed Qadri Said.

"They claim mutual love and respect, but what is happening is not indicative of this."

The military also handed Morsi a public humiliation when army commanders chose not to enforce a night curfew he imposed on three restive Suez Canal cities in riots last month.

In a direct challenge to the president, several top field commanders said they would not use force against civilians in the three cities. Residents openly defied Morsi by staging demonstrations during the curfew hours, playing soccer in the streets and setting off fireworks.

El-Sissi's top lieutenant, Chief of Staff Sedki Sobhi, delivered another implicit warning to Morsi and the Brotherhood this week.

While the military was not currently involved in politics, he said: "It keeps an eye on what goes on in the nation and if the Egyptian people ever needed the armed forces, they will be on the streets in less than a second."

Significantly, Sobhi made his comments in the United Arab Emirates, whose government accuses Egypt's Brotherhood of meddling in its affairs and has arrested 11 Egyptian expatriates there for their membership of the group.

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