For the second time in little more than two years the Egyptian military has overthrown its county's leader in response to massive nationwide protests. Only this time they deposed a democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi, who had failed to live up to his promises and who had installed an authoritarian government.
Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi announced Wednesday evening that the Morsi government was dissolved, the constitution was suspended, and that an interim government would be installed headed by a senior jurist. Military officers and a group of political and religious leaders joined el-Sisi at his announcement. The announcement set off a jubilant celebration in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands of anti-Morsi demonstrators had gathered. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a large gathering of pro Morsi supporters protested the coup. The Egyptian army had been deployed to maintain peace, but violence may not be avoided.
Former President Mohammad Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a decades old Islamic and political group founded on the belief that Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life. Last November, Morsi granted himself unlimited powers, including the ability to legislate without judicial oversight. His moves toward an Islamic state were unpopular with many Egyptians who took to the streets to express their unhappiness.
During Morsi's presidency unemployment skyrocketed, crime increased, the economy declined, and the country experienced shortages of gasoline, electricity and water. Morsi proved to be a poor manager and an unpopular president.
Nonetheless, the country is deeply divided between those wanting a sectarian government and those wanting an Islamic state. But, following the tyrannical rule of former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, the only political party of any consequence was the Muslim Brotherhood. And its party members were more easily mobilized when Egypt held its democratic election one year ago. The opposition was divided and had no strong leadership. Morsi won 51.7 percent of the vote, thus eking out a victory.
The sacking of Morsi puts President Barack Obama and the American government in a difficult spot. The White House released a statement from the president Wednesday night, in response to Morsi's toppling, which reflected America's dilemma. "We are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian constitution," Obama said. "I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters," he continued.
Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is a critical American ally. Egypt has continued to live by its vital peace agreement with neighboring Israel. Each year America provides the country about $1.5 billion in military and other aid. But that aid can be cut off in the event of a military coup. In his statement, the president said, "I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt."
Further complicating the situation is the fact that the Egyptian military is holding Morsi and has rounded up as many as 300 leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood. These actions have cast a cloud of uncertainty over an already confusing situation.
While the U.S. can try to exert pressure for a quick return to a democratic state, ultimately it will be up to the Egyptian military to move the country forward. But its promise of a roadmap for reconciliation will face great challenges because the country is so deeply divided, and the Muslim Brotherhood will be more energized than ever.
The whole world will be watching, especially Turkey, Syria, Iran and Israel.