CAIRO » As President Mohammed Morsi huddled in his guard’s quarters during his last hours as Egypt’s first elected leader, he received a call from an Arab foreign minister with a final offer to end a standoff with the country’s top generals, senior advisers with the president said.
The foreign minister said he was acting as an emissary of Washington, the advisers said, and he asked if Morsi would accept the appointment of a new prime minister and Cabinet, one that would take over all legislative powers and replace his chosen provincial governors.
The aides said they already knew what Morsi’s answer would be. He had responded to a similar proposal by pointing at his neck. "This before that," he had told his aides, repeating a vow to die before accepting what he considered a de facto coup and thus a crippling blow to Egyptian democracy.
His top foreign policy adviser, Essam el-Haddad, then left the room to call the U.S. ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, to say that Morsi refused. When he returned, he said he had spoken to Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, and that the military takeover was about to begin, senior aides said.
"Mother just told us that we will stop playing in one hour," an aide texted an associate, playing on a sarcastic Egyptian expression for the country’s Western patron, "Mother America."
The State Department had no comment Saturday on the details of the U.S. role in Morsi’s final days.
The abrupt end of Egypt’s first Islamist government was the culmination of months of escalating tensions and ultimately futile U.S. efforts to broker a solution that would keep Morsi in his elected office, at least in name if not in power. A new alliance of youthful activists and Mubarak-era elites was driving street protests. A collapsing economy put new pressure on Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, the once-outlawed Islamist group that had finally come to power after the ouster of the former president, Hosni Mubarak. And an alliance between Morsi and the nation’s top generals was gradually unraveling.
Senior Brotherhood officials said Morsi’s adamant response to the last proposal – a combination of idealism and stubbornness – epitomized his rule. It may also have doomed his presidency.
As long ago as the fall, he had spoken fatalistically of the possibility of his own ouster, his senior advisers said. "Do you think this is the peak?" he asked a visibly anxious aide during his first major political crisis. "No," Morsi said with calm resignation, "The peak will be when you see my blood flowing on the floor."
That was just after what his advisers and Muslim Brotherhood leaders now acknowledge was the defining blunder of his one-year presidency. After Mubarak-appointed judges dissolved the Islamist-led Parliament, Morsi in November declared his own authority above the courts until a constitutional convention could finish its work.
Tens of thousands of protesters denounced his tactic as authoritarian, setting off the first major street fighting between his supporters and opponents. Even some of his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood were angered, the group’s leaders and presidential advisers said. They complained that he had not consulted them, but still expected them to defend him in the streets.
"If I were not in my place, I would think he wants to be a dictator," one Muslim Brotherhood leader said when he heard the news on television, a colleague recounted on condition of anonymity. Morsi, though, feared that he would appear weak if he backed down, his advisers said. "The president is headstrong," lamented another Brotherhood leader.
Morsi never believed the generals would turn on him as long as he respected their autonomy and privileges, his advisers said. He had been the Muslim Brotherhood’s designated envoy for talks with the ruling military council after the ouster of Mubarak. His counterpart on the council was Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
The Brotherhood was naturally suspicious of the military, its historical opponent, but Sissi cultivated Morsi and other leaders, one of them said, including going out of his way to show that he was a pious Muslim. "That is how the relationship between the two of them started," said a senior Brotherhood official close to Morsi. "He trusted him."
The two grew so close that Morsi caught his advisers by surprise when he promoted Sissi to defense minister last summer as part of a deal that persuaded the military for the first time to let the elected president take full control of his government. Morsi kept relations with the military as his "personal file," and worked out the deal without consulting his aides, one adviser said.
But the generals’ exit, however, only redoubled the criticism from Morsi’s opponents that the Islamists were monopolizing power.
Morsi failed to broaden his appeal among the sectarian opposition amid complaints that he and the Brotherhood were monopolizing power. And when the protests took off last fall, Sissi signaled that his departure from politics might not be so permanent. Without consulting Morsi, the general publicly invited all the country’s fractious political factions – from social democrats to ultraconservative sheiks – to a meeting to try to come to a compromise on a more inclusive government. Morsi quashed the idea, advisers said, to avoid drawing the generals back into politics.
Sissi said publicly last week that he continued after that to try to broker some compromise with the opposition and to ease the political polarization. It was at that point, Morsi’s advisers said, that they first suspected Sissi of intrigue.
Morsi, they said, often pressed Sissi to stop unnamed military officials from making threatening or disparaging statements toward the president in the news media. Sissi merely that said "newspapers and media exaggerate," and that he was "trying to control the tensions toward the president inside the military," one adviser said.
Yet Morsi insisted to his aides that he remained fully confident that Sissi would not interfere, almost until the end of his presidency. He was the last one in the inner circle to acknowledge last week that Sissi was ousting them.
U.S. officials had repeatedly urged Morsi to compromise with the opposition and include it in government. In December, President Barack Obama met with Haddad, Morsi’s foreign policy adviser, in the Oval Office to deliver that message, Morsi’s advisers said. At one point, they said, Obama offered to intervene with the opposition leaders, either Mohamed ElBaradei, the former United Nations diplomat, or Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak. But Morsi declined.
Embassy officials tried to act as intermediaries. Morsi advisers said. They said Secretary of State John Kerry suggested naming ElBaradei as prime minister. But this year, Patterson pointedly told Morsi’s aides that some in Washington were running out of patience with her defense of Egypt’s new Islamist leaders, his advisers said.
By June, the economy was sputtering, with gas shortages and power blackouts. Young organizers tapped into the growing discontent with a petition drive calling for Morsi’s removal, and it was set to culminate in a demonstration on the anniversary of his inauguration, June 30.
The first alarms went off in Morsi’s inner circle on June 21, when Sissi issued a public statement warning that the growing "split in society" between Morsi’s supporters and opponents compelled the military "to intervene."
Morsi was given no warning, his advisers said. But when Morsi called the general, Sissi told the president that "it was to satisfy some of his men" and that "it was nothing more than an attempt to absorb their anger," one of Morsi’s advisers said. "So even after that first statement, the president didn’t think a coup was imminent."
The day before the protests, Sissi called Morsi to press him for a package of concessions, including a new Cabinet. But Morsi refused, saying he needed to consult first with his Islamist coalition.
When the protests came last Sunday, demonstrators were energized by the general’s suggestions of a possible intervention. Millions poured into the streets.
Inside Morsi’s office, Morsi’s team checked the official crowd count, sent its own observers, monitored the gathering on Google Earth, and even compared the numbers of mobile phone signals in various public squares, one adviser said, and mistakenly concluded that the pro-Morsi rally in Cairo outnumbered the protests against him.
"We felt a sense of relief," the adviser said.
The next day, Monday, Sissi gave political leaders a 48-hour ultimatum to reach a compromise. A shaken Morsi adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said at the time the president’s team considered it "a military coup."
Morsi’s advisers had meetings with Patterson and her deputy as well as a phone call with Rice, the national security adviser. Morsi’s advisers argued that ousting the president would be "a long term disaster" for Egypt and the Arab world because people would "lose faith in democracy." They said it would set off an explosion in the streets that they could not control.
And they argued that the United States was implicated: "Nobody who knows Egypt is going to believe a coup could go forward without a green light from the Americans."
The advisers say the Americans encouraged them to see hope of a compromise; one adviser told a reporter that night that their fears had receded.
At a meeting with Sissi at 2 p.m. the next day, Morsi’s advisers said that they had their coalition’s blessing to accept the earlier concessions the general had suggested before the protest.
But when the general returned to the Republican Guard building at 6 p.m., he said "the opposition" had balked, the advisers said.
Morsi’s team did not know who the general actually consulted, and the young protest leaders and some other opposition leaders said they did not know either. But that night Morsi delivered a fiery address denouncing his opponents as traitorous conspirators.
Sissi later publicly cited the speech as a turning point in his decision to act.
On Wednesday, the generals convened a four-hour meeting at military headquarters with protest and opposition party leaders. The head of Morsi’s Islamist party, now jailed, was invited but did not attend.
In Washington, officials stepped back and said little.
Morsi had been working out of his guards’ house for his own security during the protests. "He was as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him," one adviser said.
As the last aides to leave walked out, one heard a general tell his guards: "Lock the gates."