CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was defiant Tuesday amid growing pressure to back down as the deadline for a
military-imposed ultimatum approached and Morsi’s support — even within his own government — appeared to be slipping.
With only hours to go until the Wednesday deadline, Egypt was quickly hurtling toward a showdown between its powerful military and the Islamists, including Morsi, who swept to power in elections last year. Morsi’s backers in the Muslim Brotherhood have vowed that they will not go quietly if their president is forced out.
Waving his hands and shaking his fists in a 45-minute speech on national television late Tuesday, Morsi swore that he was committed to the democratic process that brought him to power and said that any attempts to subvert the constitution were “unacceptable.”
While acknowledging that he had made mistakes during his year in office as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Morsi appealed to Egyptians to give him more time to deal with the country’s problems.
The speech represented a direct challenge to the nation’s military and a signal that efforts to mediate the crisis have so far failed. Earlier on Tuesday, Morsi met with his defense minister, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, in an apparent bid to reach an accord.
Although Sissi was appointed by Morsi, the general’s announcement Monday afternoon that he would give the president and his opponents 48 hours to resolve their differences before the military implemented its own plan for the country was seen here as a direct threat to Morsi’s hold on power. Senior Brotherhood leaders have described the statement as “a coup.”
As night fell Tuesday, gunfire crackled along the Nile as the president’s supporters and opponents came to blows in the lower-class neighborhood of Kit Kat in central Cairo and near Cairo University, where the president’s supporters had gathered. The Associated Press reported that at least 23 people were killed, most of them outside Cairo University, and more than 200 were injured in clashes nationwide Tuesday, spawning fears that the violence will escalate.
Seven cabinet ministers have resigned in the past two days, including the foreign minister on Tuesday, according to local news media reports. A governor, a military adviser and the cabinet’s spokesman also quit their posts. The ultraconservative Salafist Nour party, which won the
second-largest bloc in parliament, distanced itself from Morsi on Tuesday, saying that it supported the protesters’ calls for early elections.
Egyptian police officers have said they will no longer protect the president or his Muslim Brotherhood backers, and protesters have pressed in closer to the palace where Morsi is thought to be staying.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has urged Morsi to be responsive to protesters’ concerns. The White House said Obama spoke with Morsi by phone on Monday and “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.”
Should Morsi be forced to resign — as the hundreds of thousands of opposition protesters who took to the streets for the fifth straight day Tuesday are demanding — his Islamist supporters have said they will defend him with their lives.
“We are clearly standing before an official coup by the old regime,” Mohamed El-Beltagy, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member, wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday. He urged Morsi’s backers to choose “martyrdom” in order to “prevent this from happening.”
But for political analysts — and indeed for Morsi’s opponents — the president’s eviction from office has become a foregone conclusion.
“From my point of view, as soon as that military statement came out yesterday with the 48-hour timeline, it was over,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“Setting such a short fuse was just telling the demonstrators: Look, this isn’t going to take 18 days,” Dunne said, in a reference to the 2011 uprising that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. “This will take two days.”
Opposition activists angrily dismissed Morsi’s speech Tuesday night as intransigent and delusional. Many of the protesters who remained camped in Tahrir Square said they felt confident that their battle was largely won.
“The military’s statement was clear,” said Ali Rabia, a building painter, who sat with friends in the square, drinking tea. “Just as they forced Mubarak to resign, they will force Morsi to resign as well.”
Thousands of the president’s supporters stood their ground in demonstrations across the country Tuesday, chanting their slogan, “Legitimacy” — a word that Morsi repeated at least two dozen times in his late-night speech — to counter their opponents’ mantra, “Leave.” Some Brotherhood members said that if a coup did happen, they would await orders from Brotherhood leaders.
But many said they remain convinced that the military would soon change its mind to avoid making a dangerous mistake. And Morsi appeared to signal Tuesday night that he was banking on that too. Bloodshed and violence are “a trap,” he warned. But “if we fall, it will be into an endless pit.”
“The military is afraid of a Syrian situation,” said Mahmoud Mehdat, a university student, who manned the periphery of the Brotherhood’s demonstration in eastern Cairo, armed with a white hard-hat and a plastic pipe. “They know the Islamists will not keep quiet if there is a coup. They know we will not accept a return to military rule.”
At least 20 people have died in less than a week since the protests began. Gun battles, rock-throwing and fistfights broke out across the country Tuesday between opposition protesters and Morsi supporters. Fighting raged sporadically overnight near a pro-Morsi rally outside Cairo University. Egyptian radio reported that hospital employees in the nation’s south went at each other in a brawl on the hospital floor.
Anti-government protesters have attacked nearly a dozen Muslim Brotherhood offices, setting fire to several, including the group’s Cairo headquarters on Monday.
Analysts say that if Morsi is sidelined — or forced out entirely — his Islamist backers will probably have two options: They either agree to participate in whatever political role the military allows them to occupy, or they go on the offensive.
“Rarely in history do elected presidents leave power without a lot of bloodshed,” said Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert and a political scientist at Kent State University in Ohio. “The Brotherhood is viewing what happened yesterday as an existential threat.”
Egypt’s Islamists, empowered by Mubarak’s fall and the country’s young democracy, have no intention of going back to the prisons and the torture chambers that they suffered at the hands of previous military regimes, Stacher said.
“So they’re going to fight their way out, because they believe they have an electoral mandate, which they do,” he said.
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.