— President Mohamed Morsi rejected an ultimatum in an angry speech Tuesday night as Egypt edged closer to a return to military rule.
Mr. Morsi insisted he was the legitimate leader of the country, hinted that any effort to remove him by force could plunge the nation into chaos, and seemed to disregard the record numbers of Egyptians who took to the streets demanding he resign.
But before the president’s speech, Egypt’s generals took control of the state’s flagship newspaper, Al Ahram, and used it to describe on Wednesday’s front page their plans to enforce a military ultimatum issued a day earlier: remove Mr. Morsi from office if he failed to satisfy protesters’ demands.
Under the banner headline “removal or resignation,” Al Ahram reported that the generals would “abolish the controversial Constitution” and form a committee of experts to write a new charter, form an interim presidential council with three members led by the chief of the constitutional court, and put a military leader in charge of the executive branch as an interim prime minister.
Citing an unidentified military official, the newspaper said that “to ensure the country’s security” the military and security services had already put some of Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies under house arrest, and had issued orders for the arrest of “anybody who resists these decisions” for trial in special courts.
As both sides maneuvered, tensions rose on the streets of Cairo and other cities, where violence erupted between groups of protesters and Mr. Morsi’s defenders, primarily members of the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 11 people were killed — four shortly after Mr. Morsi’s speech — and dozens more were wounded as gunfire broke out in at least two neighborhoods of the capital. Angry Islamists gathered in the street with a sheet stained with the blood of one of their allies.
The standoff threatened to roll back the clock to the day two years ago when the generals first seized power from Hosni Mubarak and to thrust Egypt into an extended period of instability and perhaps escalating violence. The military’s vow to intervene raised questions about whether Egypt’s revolution would fulfill its promise to build a new democracy at the heart of the Arab world. And the defiance of Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood allies raised the specter of the bloody years of the 1990s when fringe Islamist groups used violence in an effort to overthrow the military government.
Mr. Morsi refused to back down. In an impassioned, if at times rambling, midnight address broadcast on state television, he hinted that his removal would lead only to more violence.
“The people empowered me, the people chose me, through a free and fair election,” he said.
“Legitimacy is the only way to protect our country and prevent bloodshed, to move to a new phase,” Mr. Morsi said. “Legitimacy is the only thing that guarantees for all of us that there will not be any fighting and conflict, that there will not be bloodshed.”
“If the price of protecting legitimacy is my blood, I’m willing to pay it,” he said. “And it would be a cheap price for the sake of protecting this country.”
Mr. Morsi was responding to a threat by the military issued a day earlier that he had 48 hours to meet the protesters’ demands, or the generals would set a political road map for the future. With the clock still ticking on that deadline — set for about 3 p.m. Wednesday Egyptian time — it still remained possible that the sides could reach some compromise or power-sharing arrangement. But the vehemence of the president’s speech and the official reports of arrests made the possibility seem remote.
Shortly after his speech, the extent of Mr. Morsi’s isolation became clear when his cabinet issued a statement on its official Twitter account condemning it. “The cabinet declares its rejection of Dr. Morsi’s speech and his pushing the country toward a civil war,” the statement declared. “The cabinet announces taking the side of the people.” The cabinet spokesman had resigned, and it was unclear who had taken over the Twitter account.In a sign of how fast the ground was shifting, the Interior Ministry, enforcer of the old police state and a prime target of public outrage, removed the walls of concrete blocks erected to protect it from repeated assaults by protesters since the original revolt began. The state newspaper said the barriers were no longer needed because the police had joined “the people” in the new uprising against Mr. Morsi. Keep reading