His fate hanging in the balance, Egypt’s embattled president last night vowed he would not resign, hours before a deadline to yield to the demands of millions of protesters or see the military install a new leadership.
Islamist leader Mohammed Morsidemanded that the powerful armed forces withdraw their ultimatum, saying he rejected all “dictates” – from home or abroad.
On the streets, the sense that both sides are ready to fight to the end sharpened, with clashes between his supporters and opponents that left at least 23 dead, most of them in a single incident of fighting outside Cairo University.
In an emotional speech shown live to the nation, Mr Morsi, who a year ago was inaugurated as Egypt’s first freely elected president, pledged to protect his “constitutional legitimacy” with his life.
He accused loyalists of his ousted autocratic predecessor Hosni Mubarak of exploiting the wave of protests to topple his regime and thwart democracy.
“There is no substitute for legitimacy,” said Mr Morsi, who at times angrily raised his voice, thrust his fist in the air and pounded the podium. He warned that electoral and constitutional legitimacy “is the only guarantee against violence”.
Mr Morsi’s defiant statement showed that he and his Muslim Brotherhood were prepared to run the risk of challenging the army. It also entrenches the lines of confrontation between his Islamist supporters and Egyptians angry over what they see as his efforts to impose control by the Brotherhood and his failures to deal with the country’s multiple problems.
The crisis has become a struggle over whether a popular uprising can overturn the verdict of the ballot box. Mr Morsi’s opponents say he has lost his legitimacy through mistakes and power grabs and that their turnout on the streets over the past three days shows the nation has turned against him.
For a third day yesterday, millions of jubilant, chanting Morsi opponents filled Cairo’s historic Tahrir Square, as well as avenues next to two presidential palaces in the capital, and main squares in cities nationwide. After Mr Morsi’s speech, they erupted in indignation, banging metal fences to raise a din, some raising their shoes in the air in a show of contempt, chanting “Leave, leave”.
Mr Morsi “doesn’t understand. He will take us toward bloodshed and civil war”, said protester Islam Musbah, 28.
The president’s supporters also moved out in increased marches in Cairo and other cities, stepping up warnings that it will take bloodshed to dislodge him.
Political violence was more widespread yesterday, with multiple clashes between the two camps in Cairo as well as in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria and other cities. A march by Morsi supporters outside Cairo University came under fire from gunmen on nearby rooftops.
At least 23 people were killed in Cairo, and more than 200 injured, according to hospital and security officials. Most of the killings took place outside Cairo University, at Cairo’s twin city of Giza.
The latest casualties take to at least 39 the people who have died since the first day of protests on Sunday, many of them in shootings of anti-Morsi gatherings.
Mr Morsi went on TV hours after meeting with the head of the military, defence minister General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with the prime minister also present, in their second such meeting in as many days.
On Monday, the military gave Mr Morsi an ultimatum to meet the protesters’ demands within 48 hours. If not, the generals’ plan would suspend the Islamist-backed constitution, dissolve the Islamist-dominated legislature and set up an interim administration headed by the country’s chief justice.
The leaking of the military’s so-called political “road map” appeared to be aimed at adding pressure on Mr Morsi by showing the public and the international community that the military has a plan that does not involve a coup.
On his official Twitter account, Mr Morsi urged the armed forces “to withdraw their ultimatum” and said he rejected any domestic or foreign dictates“.
In his 46-minute speech yesterday, he implicitly warned the military against removing him, saying such action would “backfire on its perpetrators”.
Fearing that Washington’s most important Arab ally would descend into chaos, US officials said they were urging Mr Morsi to take immediate steps to address opposition grievances, telling the protesters to remain peaceful and reminding the army that a coup could have consequences for the massive American military aid package it receives.
The army has insisted it has no intention to take power. But the reported road map showed it was ready to replace Mr Morsi and make a sweeping change in the ramshackle political structure that has evolved since Mubarak’s fall in February 2011.
A retired army general with close ties to the military confirmed the news agency report of the road map.
Hossam Sweilam said a panel of experts would draft a new constitution and the interim administration would be a presidential council led by the Supreme Constitutional Court’s chief justice and including the defence minister, representatives of political parties, youth groups, Al-Azhar Mosque and the Coptic Church.
He said the military envisaged a one-year transitional period before presidential elections.
But military spokesman Col Ahmed Mohammed Ali would not confirm the details, saying: “It is too early and we don’t want to jump into conclusions.”
At least one anti-Morsi TV station put up a clock counting down to the end of the military’s ultimatum, putting it at 4pm today (3pm Irish time), though a countdown clock posted online by Morsi opponents put it at 5pm (4pm Irish time). The military did not give a precise hour.