DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
The Egyptian army has given country's Islamist president until tomorrow to reach an agreement with his opponents. Otherwise, the army will step in with its own plan for the country. That ultimatum suggests a potential coup against President Mohamed Morsi, though the military denies it. Still, news of a possible military coup is actually being welcomed by many Egyptians. They turned out by the hundreds of thousands again last night, calling for the president to step down.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, in Cairo, looks at the prospect of the military taking control again.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Anti-Morsi protesters in front of the main presidential palace cheered as an Egyptian army helicopter flew over the crowd. One was government worker Riham Shirazy, who came to the demonstration with her husband and son. She says she's happy the generals issued the ultimatum.
RIHAM SHIRAZY: I don't want them to rule Egypt. But I want them to be beside us, to be sure that everything would be safe and good on the long run.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTERS)
NELSON: Five more helicopters flew over Tahrir Square carrying giant Egyptian flags, punctuating the military's claim that it stands with the Egyptian people.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: In a statement read yesterday on Egyptian State TV, the armed forces praised the protesters and said the world was in awe of what they were doing. The military added it was giving Morsi and his opponents 48 hours to reach a deal. Otherwise, the generals say they will have no choice but to step in with a roadmap to govern Egypt.
Then, in a follow-up message on Facebook, the military denied it was staging a coup. It said its only goal is to protect the will of the Egyptian people.
Reached by phone, retired army General Sameh Seif al-Yazal predicts Egyptian military leaders will move up presidential elections now scheduled for 2016, and possibly set up a committee of mostly civilian members to run the country in the interim.
GENERAL SAMEH SEIF AL-YAZAL: The military will not interfere in the political life in Egypt, as well as they will not rule the country. This is number one. Number two, the national security is at the top of their list and they will do everything in order to put the national security in order.
NELSON: But the statement sounds ominous to activists like Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch. She recalls how the generals formed a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, to rule Egypt after forcing Hosni Mubarak out two and a half years ago.
HEBA MORAYEF: In the year when SCAF was in power in Egypt, we saw some of the most horrific human rights abuses we've seen in years in Egypt.
NELSON: She's referring to Egyptian soldiers' use of lethal force at many protests, the closed-door trials and imprisonment of the military's critics and other strong-arm tactics the generals used to try and shore up their control.
MORAYEF: Some people are arguing that the military has learned its lesson, that we won't see a repeat of 2011; that they lost too much in terms of their image in the eyes of the Egyptian people. And that may be true. But we haven't heard a lot of caution, or a lot of opposition, to the military on the streets. And that worries me because I think people need to remain vigilant.
NELSON: Morsi's camp is also suspicious of the military's intentions. While he didn't address the ultimatum, his office in a Facebook message warned the military statement may cause, quote, "confusion in an already shaky national scene."
One of his presidential advisors also told NPR that if there were a coup, he doesn't think it could happen without the tacit approval of the United States. American officials meanwhile say they are closely monitoring events here. President Obama called Morsi last night to encourage him to be responsive to his opponents' concerns.
During a visit to Tanzania yesterday, Mr. Obama said that democracy in Egypt is about more than elections.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's also about how you are working with an opposition? How do you treat dissenting voices? How do you treat minority groups? And, you know, what is clear right now is that although Mr. Morsi was elected democratically, there's more work to be done to create the conditions in which everybody feels that their voices are heard and that the government is responsive and truly representative.
NELSON: Much of Morsi's cabinet agree. Five of his cabinet ministers quit yesterday, and his foreign minister submitted his resignation overnight over the president's handling of the crisis.
Even so, it's pretty clear the Egyptian president won't go without a fight. His supporters - many of who are armed - point out that Morsi has a public mandate, having won the first free and fair presidential election in Egypt's history. Some also view the attempts to oust him as an assault against Islam. Recent clashes between pro-and anti-Morsi protesters have already claimed dozens of lives. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.