CAIRO — Egyptians braced for a possible showdown Tuesday after President Mohammed Morsi rebuffed a military ultimatum for him to restore order and his Islamist backers vowed to stand firm against what they said was a possible coup.
The presidency, in a pre-dawn statement, said it wasn’t consulted before the military’s 48-hour ultimatum and that it would press ahead with national reconciliation efforts — bids that so far have only galvanized protests not seen since Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.
The military had urged Morsi to meet the demands of Egyptians and engineer a way out of the crisis or have one imposed by the army.
“The military has essentially dumped Morsi,” said Hani Sabra, Mideast analyst with the Eurasia Group in New York. “It’s absolutely a threat of a coup.”
The plunge by the military into the rift between the Islamist president and his opponents coincided with Morsi’s first anniversary in office — a year detractors paint as one of turmoil, deepening poverty, and sectarian violence. Unemployment is at over 13 percent and economic growth is near its slowest pace in two decades.
“We swear to God, we won’t allow any coup against legitimacy, except over our dead bodies,” Mohamed El-Beltagy, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told supporters late Monday in Raba’a El-Adaweyya square. “Everyone of us must call his family and relatives and tell them get ready for the most sacred mission in Egypt’s history.”
“Are you ready for martyrdom?” he asked the supporters, who replied with cheers of “God is Great.”
For the Muslim Brotherhood that fielded Morsi for the presidency, the military statement “confirmed their worst fears,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “Now, it really does seem like everyone is out to get them.”
Hours after the military’s televised statement Monday, fireworks lit up the sky in Cairo and hundreds of thousands celebrated in the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square, building on protests that ramped up on June 30. Across town, Morsi supporters who have been holding rallies of their own, vowed to resist efforts to challenge his legitimacy.
The armed forces said Monday the deadline was a “last chance” and that it would impose its own road map for the future if the people’s demands weren’t met. Hours later, however, it downplayed talk of a coup, saying it only wants to push for a quick resolution to the current crisis.
The deadline signaled that patience had run out with a government blamed for increasing political polarization that has marred Egypt’s transition to democracy. It was issued a day after hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets asking for Morsi’s ouster.
They say he has failed in his year in office to improve their lives and worked to tighten the grip of the Muslim Brotherhood on power.
Rifts within the government appeared in the wake of the protests. The ministers of foreign affairs, tourism, environment, communications, and the state minister for parliamentary affairs submitted resignations, state-run Ahram Gate said.
Even some Islamist backers opted for the cautious route: the Salafi Nour Party, saying Egypt’s interests should “be taken into consideration,” urged Morsi to set a date for early presidential elections, Ahram Online reported.
After the military issued its ultimatum, chants of the “army and the people are one hand” rang out in Tahrir Square.
“The Egyptian people have spoken — Egypt is not the place for a religious state,” 21-year-old Hana Hussein said.
The National Salvation Front opposition bloc called on Egyptians to continue to peaceful gatherings and sit-ins, while other groups have urged a general strike if Morsi fails to meet the demands of protesters.
The army said it didn’t want to take part in politics. The “belief and culture of the Egyptian military forces do not allow for adopting the policy of military coups,” according to a statement on the Facebook page of the military spokesman.
A military council that ruled after Mubarak’s ouster and before Morsi’s election was criticized by many youth activists who accused it of mismanaging the transition.
Pushing Morsi out risks provoking a backlash from his Islamist backers. The National Coalition for Legitimacy, an Islamist group made up of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, called for counter-protests.
Morsi’s supporters, many of whom continued a protest in Cairo’s Nasr City district, say change should come only through ballot boxes after the president completes his term as the country’s first democratically elected civilian president.
They say it is too early to judge his performance and that frequent opposition protests undermine his efforts.
At least 14 deaths have been reported nationwide since June 30, when the opposition rallies started, according to Health Ministry officials. Monday, protesters stormed the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, setting its first floor ablaze.
Maritime traffic on Egypt’s Suez Canal, which handles almost 5 percent of global trade in oil, was unaffected and hasn’t been hit by any of the turmoil since Mubarak’s ouster more than two years ago.
© Copyright 2013 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.