CAIRO — Egypt’s military took control of the country late Wednesday, canceling the country’s constitution and asking the country’s supreme court to call new parliamentary elections.
In a somber announcement on national television, the country’s defense minister, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, announced that the military had taken the action because President Mohammed Morsi had shown himself unwilling to meet the demands of a fractured opposition that had wanted him to step down.
There was no word on Morsi’s whereabouts. News reports had said earlier in the day that the military had cut off all communication to him.
Cairo’s streets exploded in celebration at the announcement. For three days millions of people had flooded the streets in an unprecedented display of disaffection with the Egyptian government.
But Morsi had said he would not step down, arguing that he was the legitimate president and held the office in the first democratic election in the country’s long history.
The military reportedly surrounded crowds of Morsi supporters who’d rallied to the president’s calls that they defend him, and there were reports that some top officials of the Muslim Brotherhood had been arrested. But it was not clear how the millions of Muslim Brotherhood backers would respond.
The turn of events was a dramatic setback for the Brotherhood, which had been outlawed for much of its eight-decade history before the toppling in 2011 — under similar circumstances — of Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi was the first Brotherhood official to take power in an Arab country, and his removal from office could only be seen as a blow to an organization that only months ago was considered the premier political group in Egypt.
While the crowds in Cairo’s streets erupted in jubilation, some of the leaders of the 2011 demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s resignation voiced concern about the direction of events.
“If the military helps in ousting Morsi, I hope they won’t have a direct role as they did before,” said Ahmed Maher, who leads the April 6 Youth Movement. Then referring to the 18 days of demonstrations that began on Jan. 25, 2011, that led to Mubarak’s toppling, he worried about the impact of a military intervention today, describing Mubarak’s cronies as “remnants.”
“I am afraid that the January 25 Revolution would be forgotten,” he said. “If the upcoming period is not managed well, the remnants could come back.”
Maher’s sentiment captures the contradictions that plague the movement that forced Morsi from office. Morsi, however unpopular he was, was democratically elected, and there were no mechanisms in the country’s constitution that allowed for the military to intervene the way it has. Egypt has no vice president, and there is no agreement among the opposition over the role of the military or who should replace Morsi.
The army ruled for 18 months between Mubarak’s resignation and Morsi’s inauguration. During that rule, the country’s economy flattened, the government carried out virginity tests on female protesters and it raided 17 democracy promotion organizations, leading to the arrest of 43 people, including 16 Americans.
“They should force Morsi to leave and then leave themselves because they failed in managing the country,” Maher said.
Morsi’s 368 days in office were the only period since 1952 that Egypt’s top leader wasn’t a member of the military or a retired general.