'You no longer have any legitimacy,' Morsi told
But Muslim Brotherhood are told they can contest any new elections
HAND-PICKED by the country's leader himself, they were the generals that President Mohammed Morsi thought he could rely on. So when they turned against him, the betrayal was all the harsher.
"It was me who made you a minister, and I can fire you if I want," Mr Morsi said last week to General Abdulfattah al-Sisi, Egypt's defence chief, according to one account of their final meeting.
"You can't fire me because you no longer have any legitimacy," the general replied. He then ended the exchange tersely. "You are now under arrest."
And so it was that Mr Sisi, a pious, religious man who was thought to be strongly sympathetic to Mr Morsi's Islamist government, finally wielded the knife that brought it to an end.
To one faction of the huge crowds that gathered, it was the welcome demise of a government that had proved far from inclusive, threatening to take Egypt on a path not to democracy, but an Islamic state. For others, though, it was an insult to democracy itself – a government that had won fair and square in last year's elections, toppled simply because the army decided to back its opponents.
True, those opponents had turned out in huge numbers to vent their anger in recent days, but they were still a minority compared with the 40 per cent of Egyptian voters who had endorsed Mr Morsi via the ballot box in 2012.
So who were the generals who turned against Mr Morsi, and why exactly did they choose to bring him down?
Aged 58, Mr Sisi is considered smart, thoughtful and, by the gerontocratic standards of Egypt's political and military elite, relatively young. The army's younger breed are supposed to be independent-minded, disliking the corruption of the Mubarak-era elite and not particularly comfortable with Egypt's long-standing dependence on American military aide, currently worth around €1.16bn a year.
But for those who might assume that the army may now choose to cling to power indefinitely – deeming neither the Mubarak government nor its successor as being fit to rule – the word on Cairo's diplomatic circuit would suggest otherwise.
Since Mr Morsi's removal from office last Wednesday, the generals have been touring Western embassies, begging "understanding" for their decisive step into politics, and insisting they are merely smoothing the path to free and fair elections.
They are particularly keen to win over the British, regarding Whitehall as influential in both the European Union and even with Washington. They fear US President Barack Obama, so reluctant to involve himself in the Middle East, is "wobbly" on the military alliance and dubious about America's aid.
The money is less important than the veneer of "legitimacy" British, European and American backing can bring after what critics say was a military coup. The US ambassador, Anne Patterson, was a high-profile defender of the Muslim Brotherhood's right to govern after it triumphed in elections last year, and became a hate figure for those calling for Mr Morsi to step down.
The signs last night were that the approaches were succeeding. Mr Obama has held off from calling what happened a "coup", while Gen Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, spoke personally to one of Mr Sisi's deputies on Friday.
Britain, which has long ties with some Brotherhood leaders and was not unhappy when Mr Morsi won the presidency, appears to have concluded that irrespective of the size Mr Morsi's electoral mandate, he had made too many mistakes to carry on.
On the streets too, the army also seems to be playing a political game. On Friday night, they were notably absent as Morsi supporters and opponents fought for control of the northern entrances to Tahrir Square, hurling stones and fireworks and even shooting at each other. Just as in the 2011 revolution, their armoured personnel carriers turned up as "the people's saviours" just as the battle was already won, in this case by the square's anti-Morsi defenders.
Battles raged similarly in cities across the country, with 12 dying in Alexandria, six in the Sinai, and more elsewhere. For the first time, Islamists, outmanoeuvred politically, were clearly on the attack.
Yesterday there was relative calm, though trouble continued in the Sinai peninsula, home to both strings of seaside resorts and Egypt's most militant Islamist groups, some loyal to Al-Qaeda. In El-Arish, a Coptic Christian priest, Mina Aboud Sharween, was shot dead, a worrying sign that sectarianism may well be one result of Egypt's Christian Pope's overt support for the military action.
It is hard to time precisely Gen Sisi's decision that the Brotherhood had to go. But there were a number of key incidents in the last month, when Mr Morsi, who always had a tin ear to the opposition's priorities, also showed himself ignorant of army concerns.
The first was his appointment of a slew of Islamist governors to Egypt's provinces, in particular his decision to send Adel el-Khayat, a member of the Gamaa al-Islamiya, to Luxor, spiritual home of the Egyptian tourist industry.
Gamaa al-Islamiya was once Egypt's most feared terrorist group – and their most famous crime took place in Luxor itself in 1997, when gunmen massacred 62 tourists, six of them Britons.
The appointment was promoted as an act of reconciliation. But to Egypt's tourism industry, which in better times comprises a sixth of the economy, it was a slap in the face. And those who had compared the Brotherhood to the statue-destroying Taliban in Afghanistan were suddenly announcing themselves vindicated.
Last month, President Morsi and Mr Sisi sat together at a rally to support the Syrian opposition, at which Mr Morsi voiced support for young Egyptians volunteering to fight there, and even suggested he would put the army behind the cause.
It is hard to know which statement would have alarmed Mr Sisi more – committing his army to a potential foreign war without consulting him first, or encouraging young Egyptian men to become battle-hardened jihadists who might well return to attack Egypt itself.
Then, last Sunday, as young Egyptians took to the streets by the millions, the full extent of the popular disillusionment with Mr Morsi's rule became clear. Gen Sisi took an unusual decision. He hired a leading Egyptian film director, Khaled Yussef, to go up in an army helicopter to film the protests from above, in a bid to determine whether pro or anti-Morsi crowds were the biggest. It was clearly the latter.
When Gen Sisi met Mr Morsi the next day, the president was still dismissive of the protests. But faced with this denial, Gen Sisi put his plan into action. That afternoon, having issued his two-day ultimatum for Mr Morsi to solve the crisis, he showed Mr Morsi the video taken by Mr Yussef of the anti-government throngs – and, more importantly, leaked it to television stations.
By that stage, Mr Morsi's government, never very secure in the nuts and bolts of departmental bureaucracy, was already falling apart. Six ministers had resigned, along with Mr Morsi's presidential spokesman. Meanwhile, the defenders of the Brotherhood's headquarters were left to fend for themselves as a mob attacked with firebombs, ransacking it.
As so many Arab leaders have done in the last three years, Mr Morsi made concessions, but only when it was far too late. On Wednesday morning he offered a coalition government, but by that time, Gen Sisi was meeting the leaders of the opposition parties, including Mohammed ElBaradei.
Exact details of the final terse exchanges between Mr Morsi and Mr Sisi may only ever arise in the history books, but already, glimmerings have emerged in the Egyptian media of how Mr Sisi delivered the coup de grace. "What is your legitimacy?" he asked of Mr Morsi, throwing the word so often bandied by the Egyptian president back at him.
"This is a coup and American will not let you do it," Mr Morsi replied. That, as hindsight now shoes, appears to have been his final misjudgement.