CAIRO — As Egypt’s economy crumbles and its democratic transition falters, some opponents of the country’s Islamist president are pinning their hopes on unlikely saviors: the powerful generals who have been mostly sidelined since last year’s elections.
An argument rapidly gaining traction here holds that Egypt could soon slide into economic collapse, or even civil war, unless the military steps in to reassert a dominant role. And among those calling for some kind of coup d’etat are a few of the liberal and secular activists who campaigned to end military rule when the generals ran the country in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s fall.
“I think the army has an important role to play in this phase — to get us out of this tragedy that the Muslim Brotherhood has put us in,” said Shadi al-Ghazali Harb, a prominent liberal activist, referring to the Islamist movement allied with President Mohamed Morsi, who took power after the elections.
It’s not that memories of military abuse and the institution’s wholly undemocratic opacity are so fleeting, Harb and other anti-Islamist activists said. But Egypt’s disorganized and deeply divided opposition has struggled to find agreement on a means to best curb the Islamists’ rising influence in recent months. And some see an opportunity in what they believe is a growing popular sentiment for the kind of intervention that would stop Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in their tracks.
In February, violent clashes between police and protesters in the Suez Canal city of Port Said yielded an initial wave of local voices calling for a military coup. The demands, some of which came from middle-class residents who had voted for Morsi, gave a second wind to an opposition movement that had weathered a winter of defeats and divisions after losing a battle with the Islamists to define the country’s new constitution.
“If law and order is absent, they have a national duty to intervene, and they’ve said that,” opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said of the army in an interview with the BBC in February.
“Nobody wants the army to come back, and I don’t think if the army were to come back they would come back to govern, because they had an awful experience in mismanaging the transition themselves,” he added. “But they will just come back to stabilize, and then we will start all over again.”
Starting over is a popular concept among opposition politicians this spring, as if the best or the only answer to unfavorable democratic results is a return to square one.
“We can start over again,’’ said Hoda Abdelbaset, a member of the leftist Popular Current party who, while opposed to military rule, envisioned a solution in which Morsi would step down and a coalition of popular leaders would take control until all could reach agreement on a new constitution.
Impatience and regret are not uncommon in countries going through the transition from long-term dictatorships to first-time democracies. Frustrated citizens from Iraq to the Arab Spring states to Latin America have, at turns, greeted post-conflict turbulence with a nostalgic hunger for the authoritarian but more orderly past.
In Egypt, the backlash to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Morsi, the country’s first Islamist president, is rooted in post-revolution economic frustration, widening insecurity in the streets, a fear of religious intolerance, and a sense of disenfranchisement among many of the old political elite and the country’s liberal youths, who helped overthrow Mubarak.
And to some activists, the assumption that deepening chaos could prompt military intervention is enough of a reason to keep protesting — and to abstain from direct negotiations with the president and his allies to forge compromises on economic and other badly needed reforms.
Egyptians “see that the Muslim Brotherhood has power, guns and militias, so no one can face them without the army,” Harb said. “And in Egyptian culture, the army is the one to save the country from any occupation.”
The opposition could not achieve its goals of national leadership through last year’s elections, losing the parliamentary and presidential votes — the country’s first democratic elections — to the better-organized Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
The military, which helped uphold Mubarak’s fiercely anti-Islamist regime for decades, may be the opposition’s easiest path to redemption.
“People see the military as the antithesis of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Samer Shehata, a political scientist at Georgetown University and an expert on Egyptian politics. “And, at the same time, [the military] is viewed as the only way out, and people are looking for a way out.”
Human rights groups documented extensive military abuses during the generals’ 11 / 2-year tenure as transitional rulers, including the arbitrary detention and torture of protesters and the trials of thousands of Egyptians by closed military tribunals.
But even then, the military, which had long been a symbol of Egyptian cultural pride, never lost the country’s favor. As protests against the military heated up a year after Mubarak’s fall, about 88 percent of Egyptians still viewed the military with confidence, a Gallup poll reported at the time.
No recent polls are available to indicate the extent of the army’s popularity today, but calls for the generals to save a desperate nation are increasingly heard on street corners, in protest chants and on talk shows.
“If the army doesn’t come and alleviate our misery, then this country is going to turn out like Syria,” said Rafaat Said, a Cairo cabdriver who, like many Egyptians, laments the rising inflation and deep insecurity in the streets.
Many members of the Christian minority also have invoked the neutralizing power of an army that many had said they lost faith in after it took part in an October 2011 massacre of mostly Christian protesters in downtown Cairo.
A spate of sectarian attacks on Christians this month, including clashes outside Cairo’s main cathedral, helped cement the Islamists’ position as a far more worrying foe.
But some analysts and diplomats dismiss the critics’ calls as wishful thinking, saying the military would have little incentive to wade back into the political sphere. They say the generals’ top priority may be to maintain their immunity from prosecution and to preserve a vast, military-run economic empire — perks that are preserved under the Islamist-backed constitution.
“The military will only go down [to the streets] when there is chaos . . . that the country cannot control,” said Mohamed Habib, a former deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject echoed that view. “They have zero interest in getting back into the political environment,” the diplomat said.
Sharaf al-Hourani and Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.