Discuss as:

Keeping options open: Egypt's military maintains watchful eye on politics

Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images

Egyptian army tanks are deployed outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Thursday.

News analysis

Editor's note: This story includes a correction.

Updated at 7:25 a.m. ET: CAIRO — Many hailed the emergence of civilian rule in Egypt when then recently elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi ordered the country’s armed forces back to their barracks in August, after they had led the county for close to a year and a half.

But within months, the same military was functioning as the country's auxiliary police force, ensuring the safety and integrity of the upcoming constitutional referendum, and protecting the presidency — both physically by guarding the palace and politically by acting as an intermediary to diffuse political tensions between Islamists and the opposition.


Meanwhile, the newly drafted and disputed constitution that will be up for a vote on Saturday changes little about the military's role in the state. In fact, it preserves the ability of the military to try civilians in military courts. It also maintains the secretive budget of the armed forces, which eats up a sizable chunk of the state’s coffers.

So, as Egypt lurches through a crisis pitting the country's president and his Islamist supporters against opposition forces, observers are working to figure out what exactly the country’s powerful military will do next.

Egyptian leader told: 'Fear God... postpone the referendum'

The dispute over a controversial decree giving Morsi near absolute powers reached a crescendo on Dec. 11, when protesters opposing the president's decision circled the presidential palace. Morsi supporters, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties, took to the streets in counter protests. They, too headed to the palace, only this time to confront the president’s opponents. What ensued were deadly clashes that left at least eight people dead and more than 700 injured.

NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin is outside the presidential palace in Cairo where hundreds of thousands are protesting what they say is an unjust constitution. They want to delay a vote on the current draft of the constitution now scheduled for December 15. 

Amid the turmoil and after standing on the sidelines, the powerful armed forces weighed in and issued their first political statement since Morsi was elected on June 24.

ANALYSIS: Egypt is rapidly approaching its own 'cliff'

“Anything other than [dialogue] will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences, something which we won't allow to happen,” the statement read. The call for dialogue may have struck some as a surprise because it came from an institution that served as the backbone of the country's authoritarian regimes for six decades.

Then late Sunday night, Morsi issued a decree granting the country's military law enforcement powers, essentially giving the armed forces the legal authority to act as the country's police force. The military was allowed to arrest and detain civilians in the run up to the key constitutional referendum starting Saturday. It was also tasked with securing the thousands of polling stations around the country, meaning its job was to secure the integrity and safety of the voting process and the voters.

The move has drawn sharp criticism from Human Rights Watch, an international organization, which said the military's emergence as a law enforcement authority raises serious human rights concerns.

Egypt army gets temporary power to arrest civilians ahead of referendum

Islamist forces, however, remain skeptical of the military. After all, for decades it was the country's senior internal security leadership in conjunction with the military that hunted down Islamist leaders, jailing them and torturing them under strongman Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors.

Opponents of Egypt President Morsi say he's betraying the revolution, but his supporters say he wants to guarantee human rights with a controversial referendum on a new constitution. NBC's John Ray went onto the streets of Cairo to hear from both sides of the deepening divide.

What Egypt's military wants
The military, which had recoiled back to its bases after it led the country for nearly 18 months following the revolution that toppled Mubarak, remains skeptical, too.

"They have not been neutral. While appearing to be sympathetic to the protesters' demands, they remain suspicious of popular mobilization's ability to induce change that goes beyond their control," said Joshua Stacher, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of "Adaptable Autocrats."

Google+ Hangout with NBC News' Ayman Mohyeldin

The military is also not standing on the sidelines and will likely remain the last arbiter of Egypt’s politics. Any appearance to the contrary is a result of the armed forces being "intentionally opaque," Stacher said. 

"I don't believe that they have a plan worked out. Rather, they are waiting to see how the situation evolves before deciding what is the best course of action," he added.

Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images

Egyptian soldiers stand in line as anti-Morsi protesters stand on top of a barricade erected by the army to protect the Presidential Palace in Cairo on Tuesday.

The best course of action may just be revealing itself. The proposed constitution also stipulates that future defense ministers must be officers.

But the real test of power, Stacher and others argue, will be whether the military retains control over its vast economic empire and secretive budget under a new constitution.

External link: English translation of Egypt's draft constitution

"The military prefers to remain behind the curtain influencing events," he said. "They also have the constitution that they want in terms of securing their interests. They would prefer that the constitution pass, they stay formally out of politics, and the protesters go home."

'Men don't have to worry about being caught': Sex mobs target Egypt's women

More world stories from NBC News:

Follow World News from NBCNews.com on Twitter and Facebook