Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his army generals appeared headed for a showdown Wednesday as they vowed to spill their blood for the country hours before the clock ran out on a military ultimatum Wednesday. The Islamist leader and the opposition were told to defuse a political crisis that has entered its fourth day.
Mr. Morsi delivered a defiant late-night address to the nation promising to protect his “constitutional legitimacy” with his life and refusing to listen to the demands of millions of protesters who are calling for his resignation and new elections.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Army Chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, shot back hours later in a Facebook statement titled “The Final Hours” that it would “sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool.”
Gen. al-Sisi, who also serves as defense minister, was meeting with his commanders on Wednesday.
The military on Monday set a 48-hour deadline for the resolution of the crisis, saying it would be forced to intervene and present its own roadmap.
The military deadline runs out around 4 p.m. [10 a.m. EDT] on Wednesday.
Under the military’s plan leaked on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to quell concerns that the generals were planning a coupe, parliament’s upper house, known as the Shura Council, would be dissolved; the constitution would be suspended; an interim council, composed mainly of civilians from different political groups, would be appointed to lead the country; and early presidential elections would be held.
The plan matched closely with the demands of the protesters.
In a speech broadcast on state TV, Mr. Morsi, who was elected in June 2012, acknowledged that he had made mistakes in his first year in office, but added that his “iron will … is unshaken.”
He warned the opposition against “making our enemies happy” by falling into a trap of taking the country in the wrong direction.
“Don’t let the revolution be stolen from you,” he said, according to the Egyptian news site Ahram Online. “If the cost for legitimacy is my blood, I will give it easily.”
In Cairo, anti-Morsi protesters massed in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace for a third consecutive day shouted “leave!”
A sixth Cabinet member quit the Morsi government on Tuesday.
The army has given Mr. Morsi and the opposition until Wednesday to find a solution to the political turmoil that many fear could erupt into a civil war between pro- and anti-government forces.
Earlier, in a message posted on Twitter, Mr. Morsi urged the army to withdraw its ultimatum.
The military has prepared a plan to suspend the country’s Islamist-inspired constitution, dissolve the Islamist-dominated legislature and establish an interim administration led by the chief justice of Egypt’s supreme court to prepare for new presidential elections, Egypt’s state news agency reported.
The military said it had no intention of seizing power in a coup.
Mr. Morsi’s office said the president on Tuesday met with Gen. al-Sisi, who also serves as defense minister, but no details of the meeting were released. It said earlier it had not been consulted by the military before the ultimatum was issued. The military deadline would “cause confusion in the complex national environment,” his office added.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Tuesday spoke with Mohamed Kamel Amr, who resigned as foreign minister on Monday. Youth Minister El-Amry Farouq quit on Tuesday.
President Obama called Mr. Morsi late Monday and encouraged him to “take steps to show that he is responsive to [the protesters’] concerns and underscored that the current crisis can only be resolved through a political process,” the White House said.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s largest Salafist group, the Salafist Call, and its political arm, the Nour Party, said Mr. Morsi should set a date for early presidential elections to avoid a “civil war.” It also called for the formation of a caretaker technocrat Cabinet.
Opposition activists have launched the protests under the banner of “Tamarod,” or “Rebellion.” The National Salvation Front, a relatively secular coalition of opposition forces that has endorsed the Tamarod petition, has appointed Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to represent it in negotiations on Egypt’s future.
Even as anti-Morsi protests continued at Tahrir Square on Tuesday, thousands of the president’s supporters gathered in Nasr City, a district of the Egyptian capital.
Mr. Morsi’s Islamist backers have sought to whip up support for the embattled president by mixing calls of martyrdom in their slogans. This has raised the prospect of violent clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters.
The likelihood that the Morsi administration will survive this crisis is low, according to analysts.
“It is really late in the game for concessions” by Mr. Morsi, said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“The [Muslim Brotherhood] thought they had a firm deal with the military and clearly that deal is now off, so they have to recalculate.”
Mr. Morsi belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ahram Online reported discussions within the Muslim Brotherhood on proposing a referendum on the Morsi presidency.
“This is something that they could do to preserve a veneer of constitutional legitimacy and it could also give Morsi a chance to survive and a more graceful exit if he didn’t win the referendum,” said Ms. Dunne.
The military said in a statement on its Facebook page that its 48-hour ultimatum to Mr. Morsi and the opposition was intended to push all political parties to “quickly find solutions for the current crisis and reach a formula of national compromise that complies with the demands of the Egyptian people.”
The protests have put the Obama administration in the awkward position of picking sides in a conflict among a democratically elected president, a military bankrolled by U.S. dollars and protesters espousing democratic values.
So far the administration is staying neutral.
“We’re on neither side. We’re on the side of the Egyptian people,” said State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.
U.S. officials have been in touch with the Egyptian government, the military and opposition leaders, but Washington has not called on Mr. Morsi to hold early elections, she said.
In his phone call with Mr. Morsi, Mr. Obama “reiterated that only Egyptians can make the decisions that will determine their future,” the White House said.
Mr. Obama told Mr. Morsi that the United States is “committed to the democratic process in Egypt and does not support any single party or group,” the White House said.
“He stressed that democracy is about more than elections; it is also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government, including the many Egyptians demonstrating throughout the country.”
U.S. favorability is low among Egyptians.
“Egyptian protesters have been carrying signs denouncing President Obama for supporting terrorism, because they feel Obama uncritically supports Morsi, whom they consider a terrorist,” said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation. “That is a sad sign that U.S. policy toward Egypt has gone off the rails.”
The Obama administration has “bent over backwards to court Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Mr. Phillips.
“It has turned a blind eye to Morsi’s power grabs, the rising persecution of Egypt’s ancient Coptic Christian minority, the crackdown on pro-democracy [organizations] that the Mubarak regime formerly tolerated, and the restrictions Morsi’s government has placed on freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The administration needs to get tough with Morsi,” he said.
Ms. Dunne said the Obama administration bears some of the blame for its weak influence in Egypt. She said the White House failed to “mobilize meaningful economic support” for Egypt’s transition after the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
“It did not object strongly when Morsi made undemocratic moves, especially forcing a constitution on the country over the objections of many Egyptians,” she said. “The United States has largely taken itself out of the game.”
The U.S. provides Egypt with around $1.5 billion in annual foreign aid and most of it goes to the military.
Mr. Phillips said the Obama administration should freeze all aid to Egypt unless Mr. Morsi reverses course.
The military held power for a year and a half after Arab Spring pro-democracy protests ended Mr. Mubarak’s 29-year rule on Feb. 11, 2011.