CAIRO – Egypt's powerful military is showing signs of growing impatience with the country's Islamist leaders, indirectly criticizing their policies and issuing thinly veiled threats that it might seize power again.
The tension is raising the specter of another military intervention much like the one in 2011, when generals replaced longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak after they sided with anti-regime protesters in their 18-day popular uprising.
The strains come at a time when many Egyptians are despairing of an imminent end to the crippling political impasse between President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group on one side, and the mostly secular and liberal opposition on the other.
The tug of war between the two camps is being waged against a grim backdrop of spreading unrest, rising crime and a worsening economy.
"In essence, the military will not allow national stability or its own institutional privileges to come under threat from a breakdown in Egypt's social fabric or a broad-based civil strife," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert from the New York-based Century Foundation.
"This is not an ideological army or one that seeks to destabilize civilian governance. ... But it is also not an army that will sit by while the country reaches the tipping point on the path to civil strife."
The latest friction began when a rumor circulated that Morsi planned to replace Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, his defense minister and the army chief, because of his resistance to bringing the military under the sway of the Brotherhood-dominated government.
El-Sissi may have angered Morsi last month when he signaled the military's readiness to step in, warning that the state would collapse if no solution was found to the political crisis. Pointedly, he also spoke of how the military faces a dilemma in marrying the task of protecting state installations in restive locations with its resolve not to harm peaceful protesters.
In another provocative comment earlier this month, el-Sissi was quoted as saying he would never allow the armed forces to be dominated by the Brotherhood, or any other group, stressing the military's national identity.
A Brotherhood spokesman, Yasser Mehrez, dismissed claims that the group sought to bring the military under its sway. "This is old talk that has been repeated over and over again," he said.
The rumor about el-Sissi's dismissal was widely suspected to be a trial balloon floated by the Muslim Brotherhood to gauge military and public reaction.
The military did not officially respond. But widely published comments attributed to an anonymous military source threatened that any attempt to remove the military's top commanders would be "suicide" for the government and spoke of widespread anger within the armed forces.
The source was quoted as saying the public will not accept any meddling in the military and will close ranks to counter any pressures or challenges.
The military distanced itself from the comments on a statement posted on its official Facebook page. But the situation was deemed serious enough for Morsi's office to issue a statement late Monday that appeared aimed at calming the military.
It reassured commanders of the administration's appreciation of the armed forces and said the president had confidence in el-Sissi.
But the statement, which blamed media for spreading "lies and rumors," may have done little to ease the tension.
"The two sides may be publicly dismissing reports of tension, but the army is making it very clear to the presidency that any attempt to dismiss el-Sissi would backfire," said military analyst and retired army Gen. Mohammed Qadri Said.
"They claim mutual love and respect, but what is happening is not indicative of this."
The military also handed Morsi a public humiliation when army commanders chose not to enforce a night curfew he imposed on three restive Suez Canal cities in riots last month.
In a direct challenge to the president, several top field commanders said they would not use force against civilians in the three cities. Residents openly defied Morsi by staging demonstrations during the curfew hours, playing soccer in the streets and setting off fireworks.
El-Sissi's top lieutenant, Chief of Staff Sedki Sobhi, delivered another implicit warning to Morsi and the Brotherhood this week.
While the military was not currently involved in politics, he said: "It keeps an eye on what goes on in the nation and if the Egyptian people ever needed the armed forces, they will be on the streets in less than a second."
Significantly, Sobhi made his comments in the United Arab Emirates, whose government accuses Egypt's Brotherhood of meddling in its affairs and has arrested 11 Egyptian expatriates there for their membership of the group.
Morsi and the Brotherhood have made it clear that they do not want the military to play any political role.
But that did not stop el-Sissi from extending an invitation to the opposition and Islamist leaders loyal to Morsi to sit down informally over lunch to defuse a crisis over presidential decrees issued in November that gave Morsi near absolute powers. The decrees have since been rescinded.
Under pressure from the Brotherhood, el-Sissi withdrew the invitation just hours before the meeting was to start.
Morsi appointed el-Sissi less than two months after taking office as Egypt's first freely elected president. The Aug. 12 appointment followed Morsi's bold decision to retire the nation's two top generals, restoring the full powers of the president's office and ending a months-long power struggle between the two sides. Before Morsi's move, the military had the power to legislate since the legislature was dissolved in June by a court ruling. The military also held veto power over a panel that was drafting a new constitution at the time.
Still, few ever took el-Sissi to be the president's man. And there were doubts that six decades of de facto military rule had come to an end or that the military had been relegated to playing second fiddle to civilians.
Morsi and his Islamist supporters passed up a major opportunity to curb the military's power — something that would have meant a major confrontation with the generals.
The new constitution drafted by Islamists enshrined the military's near-complete independence and kept its vast economic interests above oversight, against the wishes of many who participated in the 2011 revolt.
With chaos in the country deepening, chants calling for military intervention during street protests, last heard en masse during the uprising, are making a timid comeback.
"Millions of Egyptians want the army to come back and deliver us from chaos," Ibrahim Issa, host of a political talk show on television, said this week.
"This is the sentiment on the Egyptian street, and ignoring it is stupid," said the popular Issa, a harsh critic of Morsi, the Brotherhood and the military when it was in power.
Since taking office in June 2012, Morsi has made little progress in tackling Egypt's pressing problems — steep price increases, surging crime, deteriorating services and fuel shortages.
The Brotherhood, which dominates parliament and the government after winning every election since Mubarak's ouster, is accused of monopolizing power. And Morsi has been criticized for failing to deliver on a promise of an inclusive government representing the Christian minority, liberal and secular political factions, and women.
The highly charged political climate and the collapsing economy could make a military takeover seem like a welcome development in some corners of Egypt — or at least a necessary evil that could salvage the nation.
But the military may not be willing to insert itself directly again in politics or governance. Its prestige was badly tarnished by scathing criticism of its handling of the post-Mubarak transition period.
A few days into the uprising, Mubarak ordered the army into the streets to replace a police force that melted away when confronted with massive public outrage over decades of abuse.
With the country in chaos and paralyzed, the military later sided with protesters who demanded that Mubarak leave office. A council of ruling generals took over the reins of power, but the relationship soon turned sour.
Activists and pro-democracy groups accused the generals of widespread human rights violations during their rule, including the torture of detainees and the trial of at least 10,000 civilians before military tribunals.
The military later made good on its promise to hand over power to an elected government, although Morsi and his Brotherhood would clearly not have been the generals' choice if they had to make one.
With that history in mind, there are serious questions about whether a military intervention can even solve any of Egypt's problems in a time short enough to satisfy a population seething with anger over the chaos and hardships of the last two years.
The military would be risking more vilification if it does not move the country onto firmer ground quickly.
Nevertheless, there may be enough goodwill toward the military and popular discontent to give it another chance.