CAIRO — Egypts military took control of the country Wednesday, suspending the constitution and asking the head of the countrys high constitutional court to lead the nation in a transition period with a government comprised of technocrats.
In a somber announcement on national television, the countrys defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, announced that the military had taken the action because Egypts first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, had shown himself unwilling to meet the demands of a fractured opposition that had wanted him to step down.
Morsi did not meet the demands of the masses, said el-Sissi, who Morsi appointed minister of defense and commander of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in August 2012.
El-Sissi made no mention of Morsis whereabouts, but Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad tweeted early Thursday that he was under house arrest, as were most members of his presidential staff. News reports had said earlier in the day that the military had cut off all communication to Morsi. Various statements published online and attributed to him called what happened a military coup and urged his supporters to reject the militarys actions.
There were signs, however, that the military was moving quickly to stifle the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the once-outlawed Islamist organization through which Morsi gained prominence and that until Wednesday was thought to be the countrys most influential political organization.
In the hours leading up to the seven-minute announcement, the military surrounded roads leading to crowds of Morsi supporters whod rallied to the presidents calls that they defend him. Immediately after the announcement, police arrested crews from the Brotherhood television channel and other Islamist channels, state news reported. The Brotherhood channel went dark shortly after Morsis fall and did not return to the air.
There were also reports that some top Brotherhood officials had been arrested for involvement in a 2011 jailbreak that freed Morsi and 33 other Brotherhood leaders. On June 23, an Egyptian court had declared the prison break illegitimate; that ruling came down on the same day the military first issued a warning that it might be forced to intervene if Morsi and his opponents were unable to reconcile. The legal ramifications for Morsi of the ruling remain unclear.
The military also moved against the local arm of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-owned news channel, raiding its offices and ending its broadcasts.
Cairos streets, which had been crowded for three days by millions of demonstrators demanding Morsis resignation, exploded in celebration at the announcement.
But among Morsis backers the reaction was anger, and there were indications it could give way to violence.
In the Rabaa section of Cairo, a crowd of bitter Morsi supporters sprayed gunfire into the air and pledged to fight to preserve the Brotherhood's political gains. Many were armed with guns and sticks.
Jihad is our destiny, they chanted. Our revolution is Islamic, Islamic. . . . Dont worry Morsi, we are all with you.
Some added, Blood will drench all the streets of Egypt.
El-Sissi said the military took the step of removing Morsi after months of trying to persuade him to compromise with his opponents. He said the militarys efforts began in November, after Morsi declared himself exempt from judicial oversight. That declaration sparked demonstrations then.
The armed forces have made over the past months strenuous efforts, directly and indirectly, to contain the situation and conduct internal and national reconciliation among all political forces, including the institution of the presidency, since November 2012, el-Sissi said. He said that all political forces responded, but it was turned down by the presidency in the last moments.
El-Sissi said the head of the countrys Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, 67, would become the countrys acting president and would take the oath of office Thursday. He said Mansour would have the right to rule by decree until a new Parliament was seated. El-Sissi also called for Mansour to set presidential elections soon.
Mansour has been the deputy head of the court since 1992. Hell retain his court position while serving as president.
The militarys announcement, which came at 9:20 p.m. after a day of tension as people waited to hear what the countrys generals had decided, brought to an end the first democratically elected administration in Egypts history. It marked another in a seemingly unending string of tumultuous events in the more than two years since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.
Morsi had said he would not step down and was unwavering to the end. In his last speech as president, he at one point yelled, I am the president of Egypt.
After seeing their fortunes dashed after a year of triumph, Morsi supporters lashed out. In Rabaa, McClatchy reporters witnessed Morsi supporters brutally beat a man after he identified himself as a journalist. You are responsible for this! one man yelled as he struck the 32-year-old man.
Throughout Cairo it was hard at times to differentiate the sound of people celebrating by launching fireworks from those shooting in the air, promising retribution.
Their reactions portended of instability here, despite el-Sissis plea that Egyptians steer away from violence. For some of Morsis supporters, an Islamic vision for the region was at stake.
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 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 setback for an organization that only months ago was considered the premier political group in Egypt.
While the crowds in Cairos streets erupted in jubilation, some of the leaders of the 2011 demonstrations that led to Mubaraks resignation voiced concern about the direction of events.
If the military helps in ousting Morsi, I hope they wont have a direct role as they did before, said Ahmed Maher, who leads the April 6 Youth Movement and was a key organizer of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations that began on Jan. 25, 2011.
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.
Mahers 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 countrys constitution that allowed for the military to intervene the way it has. Egypt has no vice president and there was no agreement among the opposition over the role of the military or who should replace Morsi.
In December, a constitutional committee dominated by the Brotherhood hastily passed a constitution that required a two-thirds vote of Parliament to remove the president. But the countrys court had ordered the Islamist-dominated Parliament dissolved, and with promised parliamentary elections never scheduled, Morsi gave himself legislative powers.
While Morsis rule was striking for its administrative incompetence, the armys record during the 18 months it ruled between Mubaraks resignation and Morsis inauguration wasnt much better. During that time, the countrys economy flattened, the government carried out virginity tests on female protesters and 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.
Morsis 368 days in office were the only period since 1952 that Egypts top leader wasnt a member of the military or a retired military officer.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef