WHAT would you do if millions of citizens poured into streets demanding that you go? On television during his election campaign last year, Muhammad Morsi answered without hesitation. First, he said, people would not demonstrate against him because as president he would faithfully represent their will. “But if they do,” he added firmly, “I would be the first to resign.”
But Egypt’s first freely-elected president has not resigned, yet, despite nationwide protests on June 30th that were far bigger than those that brought down his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, two and a half years ago. Not only did the vast crowds bring every major city in Egypt to a standstill, amid an impromptu general strike. In scores of villages and provincial towns, protesters invaded government offices and shut them down by force, as police looked on approvingly. They also invaded, torched and looted the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive fraternity that nurtured Mr Morsi and carried him to power. Five of his own ministers resigned, too, the latest in a long string of defections in the 12 months since Mr Morsi took office.
As if still more prompting were needed, on July 1st, Egypt’s army issued an ultimatum. If the country’s bickering civilian politicians do not find ways to meet people’s demands within 48 hours, it said, the army will issue its own political road map for them to follow. Given the extreme polarisation of Egypt’s politics, and the accelerating evaporation of the Brotherhood’s constituency, there does not seem to be much incentive for Mr Morsi’s opponents to compromise.
For hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who came out for a second day of cheerful protests, there was no doubt what the army’s diktat meant: Mr Morsi is finished. Lending further credence to this supposition, a squadron of army helicopters, each trailing a giant Egyptian flag, circled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a triumphant show of force that was met with roars of approval. The military also paid an unannounced visit to the Nile-side headquarters of Egypt’s state broadcasting system. The officials Mr Morsi had appointed to run Egyptian TV and radio quietly exited.
Despite the army's insistence that its ultimatum does not amount to a coup, some have already declared its intervention a “soft coup”, not unlike its move, in 2011, to usher Mr Mubarak out of power. The military lingered too long then, during the tumultuous transition before Mr Morsi’s term, earning opprobrium for human rights abuses and general ham-fistedness. But a precipitous slide in Egypt’s economy under civilian rule, accompanied by lawlessness and corruption, has aided in shortening memories. With Mr Morsi’s administration having signally failed to tackle the country’s myriad and deep problems, opposition to it has snowballed over recent weeks into an avalanche.
Opinion polls from before the recent protests gave Mr Morsi an approval rating of around 30%. This has certainly now shrivelled as even fellow Islamists have abandoned a clearly sinking ship. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood has hundreds of thousands of active members, and millions of sympathisers. Containing their unhappiness will be a pressing challenge.
Egypt’s military has not revealed what its “road map” might look like. Most analysts expect that, having absorbed lessons from its last intervention, the army may this time both act more forcefully and set a quicker pace. The expectation is that its goal will be a return to civilian rule, under a revised and more inclusive constitution than the one that Mr Morsi hastily forced through last year. But despite the sudden eruption of public enthusiasm for the army, worries do linger. Could it be that now, armed with massive public backing and having dispensed with the Brotherhood, the only civilian party strong enough to challenge them, Egypt’s soldiers may be tempted to stay in power?