DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Events are quickly unfolding in Egypt, and if they do lead to a military coup, some in the country say they're ready for that. They're that angry about the crippled economy and what they see as Morsi's push for unchecked powers. The idea of people wanting a military takeover seems ironic for a country that was only recently liberated from decades of authoritarian rule. But the fact is, generations of Egyptians have looked to their military almost as a father figure.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has more on this complicated relationship.
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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Egyptians' love for their armed forces is captured in this popular 1957 ballad. The song is played on state-run television to remind Egyptians of the military's role in making their country a top power in the Arab world. It's those sentiments the Egyptian military is counting on now as it steps in to end the political crisis, between Egypt's first freely elected president and his growing number of opponents.
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NELSON: In a televised statement, the armed forces two days ago ordered both sides to make peace by today, or else accept its road map for Egypt's future. The ultimatum suggests another Egyptian military coup may be underway. But some Egyptian analysts here say what the generals are planning this time appears aimed at preserving Egypt's nascent democracy.
MAHMOUD SABIT: I think they're going to try and play a role, more of a sort of a - I'm not going to say honest broker, because it's not really quite that, either, but as a sort of midwife, if you like.
NELSON: Mahmoud Sabit is an Egyptian historian in Cairo.
SABIT: I'm going to be honest to optimistic and suggest that maybe they're going to basically preside over what the political forces wish to do, and try and take an impartial position.
NELSON: His take is bolstered by what the military leaked of its plans to the media last night. Those accounts say the generals plan to hold early presidential elections and appoint a committee representing protesters, opposition groups and the military to run the country in the meantime. That's far different than what happened the last time the army took the side of protesters back when Hosni Mubarak was forced out in 2011.
Their relationship quickly deteriorated after military leaders tried manipulating Egypt's newfound democracy to preserve their power and economic interests. By the time President Mohammed Morsi took office in mid-2012, many Egyptians were happy to be rid of military rule. Bolstered by public discontent, the first democratically elected leaders sidelined the Soviet-trained generals.
He formed an alliance with a new Western-educated crop of officers, among them, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who became his defense minister. Sameh Seif al Yazal is a retired Egyptian general who claims close ties with the new military leadership.
SAMEH SEIF AL YAZAL: Sissi and the entire army were actually looking to have a good relation with the presidency, and they opened their arms widely to receive him and to have a new page of relation between them.
NELSON: He says the fact the new generals were trained in America and Europe helped them embrace Egypt's new democracy. But the alliance between Morsi and the generals has always been uneasy, given the military and Islamists have battled each other for decades. Yazal says Morsi's treatment of the generals over the past year further damaged their relationship.
He says the president often refused to consult with them on matters of national security and embarrassed them publically.
YAZAL: I'll give you one example. When we had the riots a few months ago in Port Said, he embarrassed the army. Without asking them, he put martial law in Port Said Suez Canal cities, Ismailiyya and Suez, and ordered the army to go down to force the curfew.
NELSON: He adds the military did go, but refused to impose martial law or arrest anyone. Yazal says that as the Egyptian economy began to crumble and protesters began to take to the streets in record numbers, the military could no longer ignore the situation. But Morsi sees what the military is doing as illegal. Sondos Assem is a communications advisor to the president.
SONDOS ASSEM: We reject any military oversight on the democratic process in Egypt, and we reject any idea of a coup or any kind of military intervention, whether directly or indirectly.
NELSON: Morsi is counting on Egyptians remembering how heavy-handed the military was when it ran things before. But this time, the generals may have learned from their mistakes. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.