Struggling to subdue continuing street protests, the government of President Mohamed Morsi has approved legislation reimposing martial law by calling on the armed forces to keep order and authorizing soldiers to arrest civilians, Egypt's state media reported on Saturday.
Morsi has not yet issued the order, the flagship state newspaper Al Ahram reported. But even if merely a threat, the preparation of the measure suggested an escalation in the political battle between Egypt's new Islamist leaders and their secular opponents over an Islamist-backed draft constitution. The standoff has already threatened to derail the culmination of Egypt's promised transition to a constitutional democracy nearly two years after the revolt against the former leader Hosni Mubarak.
"President Morsi will soon issue a decision for the participation of the armed forces in the duties of maintaining security and protection of vital state institutions until the constitution is approved and legislative elections are finished," Al Ahram reported, suggesting that martial law would last until at least February. Parliamentary elections are expected to be held two months after the constitutional referendum, which is scheduled for next Saturday.
A short time later, a military spokesman read a statement over state television echoing the report of the president's order. The military "realizes its national responsibility for maintaining the supreme interests of the nation and securing and protecting the vital targets, public institutions, and the interests of the innocent citizens," the spokesman said.
Expressing "sorrow and concern" over recent developments, the military spokesman warned of "divisions that threaten the state of Egypt."
"Dialogue is the best and sole way to reach consensus that achieves the interests of the nation and the citizens," the spokesman said. "Anything other than that puts us in a dark tunnel with drastic consequences, which is something that we will not allow."
Al Ahram reported that the defense minister would determine the scope of the military's role. Military officers would be authorized to act as police and "to use force to the extent necessary to perform their duty," the newspaper said.
A need to rely on the military to secure a referendum to approve the new charter could undermine Morsi's efforts to present the documents as an expression of national consensus that might resolve the crisis.
Even the possibility presents an extraordinary role reversal: an elected president who spent decades opposing Mubarak's use of martial law to detain Islamists — a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who himself spent months in jail under the "emergency law" — is poised to resort to similar tactics to control unrest and violence from secular groups.
After six decades during which military-backed secular autocrats used the threat of an Islamist takeover to justify authoritarian rule, the order would bring the military into the streets to protect an elected Islamist, dashing the whispered hopes of some more secular Egyptians that the military might step in to remove Morsi.
The move would also reflect an equally extraordinary breakdown in Egyptian civic life that in the last two weeks has destroyed most of the remaining trust between the rival Islamist and secular factions, beginning with Morsi's decree on Nov. 22 granting himself powers above any judicial review until the ratification of a new constitution.
At the time, Morsi said he needed such unchecked power to protect against the threat that Mubarak-appointed judges might dissolve the constitutional assembly. He also tried to give the assembly a two-month extension on its year-end deadline to forge consensus between the Islamist majority and the secular faction — something liberals have sought. But his claim to such power for even a limited period struck those suspicious of the Islamists as a return to autocracy, and his authoritarian decree triggered an immediate backlash.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters accusing Morsi and his Islamist allies of monopolizing power have poured into the streets. Demonstrators have attacked more than two dozen Brotherhood offices around the country, including its headquarters. And judges declared a national strike.
In response, Morsi's Islamist allies in the assembly stayed up all night to rush out a draft constitution over the boycotts and objections of the secular minority and the Coptic Christian church. Then, worried that the Interior Ministry might fail to protect the presidential palace from sometimes-violent demonstrations outside, Morsi turned to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to defend it, resulting in a night of street fighting that killed at least six and wounded hundreds in the worst clashes between political factions since Gamal Abdel Nasser's coup six decades ago.
International experts who monitored the constituent assembly's work say that before the crisis, the Islamists and their secular foes had appeared close to resolving their differences and uniting around a document that both sides could accept. Even the draft charter, ultimately rushed out almost exclusively with Islamist support, stops short of the liberals' worst fears about the imposition of religious rule. But it leaves loopholes and ambiguities that liberals fear an Islamist majority could later use to empower religious groups or restrict individual freedoms, which the secular opposition has repeatedly compared to the theocracy established by the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Their denunciations, in turn, have reminded Islamist leaders of the Algerian military coup staged in the early 1990s to abort elections after Islamists won, and Morsi's political allies have repeatedly accused their secular opponents of seeking to undermine democracy in order to thwart the will of the Islamist majority.
Against the backdrop of the mounting distrust, Morsi's advisers say he has tried to offer a series of compromises. He has sought to redefine his initial decree so it fits within judicial precedents instead of stepping over the courts. He has said that the decree would be canceled after the referendum next weekend, even if the constitution is rejected.
And on Friday night, government officials opened the door to a delay in the referendum so that the constituent assembly can make further amendments, if secular opponents would agree to the terms.
But Morsi's Islamist allies say that they have also lost hope that any concession would satisfy the secular opposition and are convinced the opposition's true goal is to bring down the president — the main chant of the protesters who have surrounded the presidential palace for the last four nights. Morsi's secular opponents say they do not trust the president or the Brotherhood to deal in good faith. They are insisting that he agree to revamp the constitutional drafting process before they sit down for any talks.
In a speech two days ago, Morsi had invited secular opposition leaders to meet with him Saturday to try to work out a compromise. But the principal leaders declined the invitation. Without them, he met with a group again dominated by fellow Islamists, including some less-conservative Islamists outside the Brotherhood's party, according to a list reported on state media. Only one secular politician, the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, attended.
The continuing unrest in the streets and attacks on Brotherhood offices had begun to raise the possibility that violence might mar next Saturday's scheduled vote on the referendum. While a deployment of the military could allay those concerns, it might also lead to new questions about the legitimacy of the process if the charter is indeed approved, complicating longer-term hopes of restoring civility and trust.