CAIRO -- The Egyptian military Wednesday ordered a travel ban on President Mohamed Morsi and members of his Muslim Brotherhood movement as commanders worked to isolate the Islamist leader and form a coalition government.
Egyptian media reported that officials at the Cairo airport were told to block prominent Brotherhood officials, including Essam Erian and Khairat Shater, from leaving the country.
The move came as military commanders met with opposition and religions figures, including Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II.
The military, which had given Morsi until 5 p.m. Cairo time (8 a.m. PDT) to end months of unrest, was expected to announce in the coming hours the scrapping of the Islamist-backed constitution and the establishment of a coalition government.
Egyptian media reported that Morsi was still refusing to step down but said a coalition government, which he had earlier rejected, might be a way out of the crisis.
The army’s actions heightened the chances that Egypt could slide into factional bloodshed. Essam Haddad, an adviser to Morsi, wrote on his Facebook page that the military was tightening its circle around the Muslim Brotherhood.
“As I write these lines I am fully aware that these may be the last lines I get to post on this page,” he wrote. “For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let’s call what is happening by its real name: military coup.”
Meanwhile, thousands of anti-government protesters were waiting in Tahrir Square for a statement from the military. Many chanted:"Leave, leave” and waived the Egyptian flag.
“Morsi did nothing for us,” said Narges Kamel, 65, who was among the crowd. “Everything is more expensive. There is no social justice. The military will stand with us and with Egypt. They [the Brotherhood] can’t attack us. We have the youth, the police and the military on our side.”
Helicopters buzzed over Cairo, and the army’s Facebook page carried an ominous post titled: “The Final Hours:”
“The general commander of the armed forces has mentioned that it is more honorable for us to die than for the Egyptian people to be intimidated or threatened ... and we swear to god that we will sacrifice for Egypt and its people with our blood against any terrorist, fundamentalist, or ignorant [person].”
Fear, excitement and apprehension have gripped the nation, which two years ago overthrew Hosni Mubarak only to face economic turmoil, political divisions and deadly protests that have marred the path toward democracy. Pro- and anti-Morsi supporters clashed through Tuesday night, including fighting at Cairo University, where 16 people were killed and more than 200 injured.
The military is exasperated at Morsi and the Brotherhood, but the president said he has the legitimacy of being Egypt’s first freely elected leader. Millions of anti-government demonstrators have demanded that Morsi step aside and call early elections.
Such a scenario would be a major defeat for the Brotherhood, a once-outlawed organization that has waited more than 80 years to impose its brand of political Islam on the country. But the forces of the secular state, founded after a 1952 military coup against British rule, are suspicious of Morsi’s intentions and the Brotherhood’s exclusion of other political voices.
The military, though, faces steep risks with a coup. It has said it will tear up the new Islamist-backed constitution and form a transitional coalition government made up of civilians. The army unsuccessfully ruled the country from 2011 until Morsi took office, and if it appears to remain it power too long, it will likely face a new backlash.
Hassieb is a special correspondent.