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 Saturday.
Mr. 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.
In a statement read on state television, a military spokesman warned Saturday of “disastrous consequences” if the crisis gripping Egypt was not resolved and he urged new dialogue as “the best and only way” to overcome the standoff. The military also pledged to protect state institutions, according to media reports.
“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,” the state newspaper Al Ahram reported, suggesting that the 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.
The paper 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Morsi.
The move would also reflect an equally extraordinary breakdown in…