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Thursday, July 4, 2013 - Page updated at 10:30 p.m.

Morsi toppled, taken into custody

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
The New York Times

CAIRO — Egypt’s military officers removed the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, on Wednesday, suspended the constitution and installed an interim government presided over by a senior jurist.

Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands of opponents of the government had gathered each night since Sunday to demand Morsi’s removal, erupted in fireworks and jubilation at news of the ouster. At a square near the presidential palace where Morsi’s Islamist supporters had gathered, men cried and vowed to stay until he was reinstated or they were forcibly removed.

“The dogs have done it and made a coup against us,” they chanted. “Dying for the sake of God is more sublime than anything,” a speaker said. Morsi rejected the generals’ actions as a “complete military coup.”

Military vehicles and soldiers in riot gear had surrounded the rally in the hours before the takeover, and tensions escalated through the night. Within hours, at least seven people had died and more than 300 were injured in clashes in 17 provinces between Morsi’s supporters and either civilian opponents or security forces.

For Morsi, it was a bitter and ignominious end to a tumultuous year of bruising political battles that ultimately alienated millions of Egyptians. Having won a narrow victory, his critics say, he broke his promises of an inclusive government and repeatedly demonized his opposition as traitors. With the economy crumbling, and with shortages of electricity and fuel, anger at the government mounted.

Since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has plunged deeper and deeper into economic malaise. The rage that helped topple Morsi was nurtured by the Arab Spring’s failure to deliver economic recovery.

By the end of the night, Morsi was in military custody and blocked from all communications, one of his advisers said, and many of his senior aides could not be reached. Egyptian security forces had arrested at least 38 senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Saad el-Katatni, the chief of the group’s political party, and others were being rounded up, security officials said. No reasons were given for the detentions.

In a carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers, the generals built their case for intervention, calling their actions an effort at a “national reconciliation” and refusing to call their takeover a coup. At a televised news conference late Wednesday, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sissi said the military had no interest in politics and was ousting Morsi because he had failed to fulfill “the hope for a national consensus.”

The general stood on a stage, flanked by Egypt’s top Muslim and Christian clerics and a spectrum of political leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat and liberal icon, and Galal Morra, a prominent Islamist ultraconservative, or Salafi, all of whom endorsed the takeover.

Despite their protestations, the move pushed the generals back to the center of political power for the second time in less than three years, after their ouster of Mubarak in 2011. Their return threatened to cast a long shadow over future efforts to fulfill that revolution’s promise of a credible, civilian democracy. El-Sissi sought to present a different image from the anonymous, numbered communiqués from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that were solemnly read over state television to announce Mubarak’s exit, and the general emphasized that the military had no desire to rule.

Under a “road map” for a post-Morsi government devised by a meeting of civilian, political and religious leaders, the general said, the constitution would be suspended, the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adli Mansour, would become acting president and plans would be expedited for new parliamentary and presidential elections under an interim government.

At the White House, President Obama urged the military to move quickly to return Egypt to a democratically elected government, saying: “We are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian armed forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian constitution.”

The president did not refer to the military’s takeover as a coup. If the U.S. government determines the Egyptian military carried out a coup, it could affect the approximately $1.5 billion in economic and military assistance the U.S. gives Egypt each year.

Beyond U.S. aid, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Egyptian authorities have been negotiating the terms of a possible $4.8 billion loan to Egypt.

The uprising against Mubarak was driven by hatred of the heavy-handed police state, but also by deep-seated social and economic discontent in a country where nearly half the population of 90 million lives below or near the international poverty line of $2 a day per person.

That discontent is evident on the streets of Egypt, where ordinary citizens lament the hardships.

Gihan Ibrahim, 40, a mother of four filling up her shopping cart in a Cairo supermarket, said her impression was that prices had surged in the past year.

“There is no longer a middle class. They all became poor,” she said. “I think this period of instability is going to be long.”

“There are several drivers of opposition to Morsi at present, but economic woes are the most important,” said Edward Coughlan, Head of Middle East and North Africa Research at Business Monitor International in London.

Analysts said Egypt could be moving toward a worst-case scenario economically, from increasing fuel shortages and blackouts, a sudden and sharp depreciation of the currency that will make everything more expensive and a depletion of foreign-currency reserves so severe it could make importing critical oil and food items difficult.

Protracted fuel shortages are another source of anger and frustration. A common sight in the capital in the days before Morsi was overthrown was long lines of cars snaking around gas stations and blocking main roads in the city of about 20 million, which already experiences horrendous traffic jams.

Fuel shortages have been linked to corruption and sabotage. The shortages contributed to anger against Morsi.

To secure the IMF loan, Egypt is under pressure to phase out $14.5 billion a year in fuel subsidies that are a heavy drag on the budget. The government spends an additional $4 billion to subsidize food, most of it going to bread.

Still, Morsi’s government repeatedly delayed implementation of politically unpalatable austerity measures, such as cutting those subsidies, likely out of fear of adding to unrest and losing votes in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Ahmed el-Sayyed el-Naggar, an economic expert at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said there have been virtually no developments to improve economic conditions, and there will not be any until the political conflict is resolved.

Moments after el-Sissi spoke, Morsi released a short video over a presidential website delivering a final, fiery speech denouncing the coup. “I am the elected president of Egypt,” he said. “The revolution is being stolen from us.” Minutes later, the website was shut down.

Includes material from Bloomberg News

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