CAIRO — President Mohammed Morsi rejected an ultimatum in an angry speech Tuesday night as Egypt edged closer to a return of military rule.
He 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 even before the president’s speech, Egypt’s generals took control of the state’s flagship newspaper, Al Ahram, and used it to spell out on Wednesday’s front page their plans to remove Morsi from office if he failed to satisfy the demands of the protesters.
As both sides maneuvered, tensions rose on the streets of Cairo and other cities, where violence erupted between groups of protesters and Morsi’s defenders, primarily members of the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 11 people were killed — four after Morsi’s speech — and dozens more injured as gunfire broke out in some places. Angry Islamists gathered in the street with a sheet stained with the blood of one of their allies.
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 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.
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,” 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.”
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 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.
The opposition umbrella group coordinating the protests, the June 30 Front, said Tuesday that it had named Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent statesman and opposition leader, to represent it in “any possible upcoming talks with the armed forces.” The group said its demands included Morsi’s departure and formation of a technocratic Cabinet to run the country.
ElBaradei declined to comment Tuesday. Before the Brotherhood came to power, he was among Egypt’s most outspoken critics of military rule, arguing for a full changeover to a civilian presidential council during the writing of a constitution.
Faced with the huge protests against Morsi and growing paralysis of Egyptian politics, a more conservative Islamists party, Al Nour, also broke with the Muslim Brotherhood to join the call for early presidential elections as an end to the impasse.
But Al Nour and other ultraconservatives, known as salafis, have sought to preserve the constitution because they cherish its provisions regarding Islamic law, and a military-backed constitutional panel may well revise them.
Brotherhood leaders have sounded increasingly alienated and determined to fight.
“Everybody abandoned us, without exception,” Mohamed el-Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood leader, declared in a statement posted Tuesday on the Internet. “The police looks like it’s assigned to protect one group of protesters and not the other,” he wrote, “and maybe instead of blaming the thugs they will shortly accuse our supporters of assaulting themselves in addition to their alleged assault on the opposition.”