CAIRO - In a passionate address to the nation Tuesday, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said he would not step down and vowed to protect his democratic constitutional legitimacy with his life.
“I am prepared to sacrifice my blood for the sake of the security and stability of this homeland,” Morsi said in his speech.
Morsi’s late-night speech defied the millions of protesters seeking his ouster and fresh elections, as well as the country’s armed forces 48-hour ultimatum for him to strike a deal with his political opponents.
Morsi accused loyalists of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak – “remnants of the old regime” -- of fighting against democracy and challenging his leadership through the current wave of protests.
His democratic election and the legitimacy it enshrined were the main themes of a speech, during which Morsi’s tone often grew loud and passionate.
In his address, he also asked Egyptians not to confront the military or use violence against its forces, the police or the interior ministry.
Responding to Morsi three hours after his TV speech in a Facebook post titled "The Final Hours," Egypt's high command said the army was ready to die to defend the country's people against terrorists and fools, Reuters reported.
The post on the official Facebook page of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, read: "We swear to God that we will sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool."
Earlier in the day, Morsi demanded that the armed forces withdraw their ultimatum, saying he would not be dictated to.
"President Mohammed Morsi asserts his grasp on constitutional legitimacy and rejects any attempt to deviate from it, and calls on the armed forces to withdraw their warning and refuses to be dictated to internally or externally," a tweet from the Egyptian presidency account said, according to Reuters.
The clock was ticking for Morsi to meet the demands of millions of protesters seeking his ouster and fresh elections after an ultimatum issued to the Islamist leader by his own armed forces.
If Morsi does not meet the demands by Wednesday, the military has said it will impose its own “road map” for the future.
Meanwhile, in the ongoing chaos, Egyptian security and health officials said 16 people were killed on Wednesday and 200 people were wounded in clashes between Morsi opponents and supporters, Reuters reported.
Witnesses told Reuters they heard shotgun and rifle fire.
Violence during the protests over the weekend had already left 16 people dead and hundreds injured.
President Barack Obama and the United Nations have each urged Morsi to listen to his people, as a massive crowd gathered once again in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a briefing Tuesday that they were following the “extremely tense situation” in Egypt with “great concern.”
“We urge all political parties and social groups to urgently engage in a serious national dialogue in order to find a solution to the political crisis and prevent an escalation of violence,” Colville said.
“We call on the president of Egypt to listen to the demands and wishes of the Egyptian people, expressed during these huge protests over the past few days, and to address key issues raised by the opposition and civil society in recent months, as well as to heed the lessons of the past in this particularly fragile situation,” he added.
He welcomed assurances given by the military and law enforcement agencies that “no measures will be taken that could lead to excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators.”
The White House said in a statement Tuesday that Obama had called Morsi on Monday, urging him to listen to “the voices of all Egyptians.”
Obama told Morsi that the United States was “committed to the democratic process in Egypt and does not support any single party or group.”
But the president also “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,” the statement said.
Obama encouraged Morsi “to take steps to show that he is responsive to their concerns, and underscored that the current crisis can only be resolved through a political process,” it added.
“President Obama also underscored his deep concern about violence during the demonstrations, especially sexual assaults against female citizens,” the White House said. “He reiterated his belief that all Egyptians protesting should express themselves peacefully, and urged President Morsi to make clear to his supporters that all forms of violence are unacceptable.”
Amid the heightened tensions, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was closed on Tuesday with regular consular service suspended. It also will be closed Wednesday, and U.S. citizens were advised to “avoid areas where large gatherings may occur.”
On June 28, the State Department allowed a “limited number of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and family members” to leave the country “due to the ongoing political and social unrest.”
Canada said on Twitter that its embassy in Cairo would be “closed until further notice for security reasons.”
According to an airport security source, a list has been circulated containing the names of 48 leading members of political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, who must now inform national security officials before leaving the country. The use of private jets has also been temporarily banned.
It remains unclear whether the Egyptian army was actually calling for Morsi to stand down, or whether it would accept some attempted compromise.
However, a statement issued by Morsi’s office complained said that it was not consulted about the army’s ultimatum and said “the presidency sees that some of the statements in it carry meanings that could cause confusion in the complex national environment.”
It added that his administration was “going forward on its previously plotted path to promote comprehensive national reconciliation ... regardless of any statements that deepen divisions between citizens.”
Morsi’s office, discussing the call with Obama, said the U.S. was “working with the Egyptian leadership elected by the Egyptian people and supports peaceful democratic conditions in Egypt.”
“The president confirmed that Egypt is moving forward in a peaceful democratic transition built on constitution and law,” Morsi’s office said.
It also said that Egypt’s “democratic, civil, modern state” was “the most important achievement” of the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
“We will not allow Egypt with all its forces to return backward under any circumstances,” Morsi’s office said. “Egypt has paid dearly from the blood of its sons and its stability and security and its delayed the path to development, these are the high prices it paid to build a new state. We all chose democratic means as the only safest way to manage our differences of opinion."
Ian Johnston reported from London.
First published July 2 2013, 7:50 PM