CAIRO — Egypt’s powerful military warned on Monday it will intervene if the Islamist president doesn’t “meet the people’s demands,” giving him and his opponents two days to reach an agreement, as thousands of protesters massed for a second day calling on Mohammed Morsi to step down.
The 48-hour ultimatum, said the military, was a “last chance.”
The military’s statement, read on state television, puts enormous pressure on Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. So far, the president has vowed he will remain in his position, but the opposition and crowds in the street — who numbered in the millions nationwide on Sunday — have made clear they will accept nothing less than his departure and a transition to early presidential elections.
That makes military action when the deadline runs out nearly inevitable, since a deal seems unlikely. It did not define the “people’s demands” that must be met. But it strongly suggested that Sunday’s gigantic rallies expressed the desire of Egyptians, raising the likelihood it would insist on Morsi’s departure.
Cheers erupted from many protesters watching the statement in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as military helicopters buzzed overhead. “Come out, el-Sissi. The people want to topple the regime,” protesters in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kubra chanted, urging military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to intervene.
Already, the military’s presence in Cairo has increased at sensitive spots the past two days. Troops on Monday manned checkpoints on roads leading to a pro-Morsi rally of Islamists near his palace. They checked cars for weapons, after repeated reports some Islamists were arming themselves.
The military protests praised the anti-Morsi protests as “glorious,” saying the participants expressed their opinion “in peaceful and civilized manner,” and that “it is necessary that the people get a reply … to their calls.”
The military underlined it will “not be a party in politics or rule.” But it said it has a responsibility to act because Egypt’s national security is facing a “grave danger,” according to the statement.
“The Armed Forces repeat its call for the people’s demands to be met and give everyone 48 hours as a last chance to shoulder the burden of the historic moment,” it said.
If the demands are not realized in that time, the military would be obliged to “announce a road-map for the future and the steps for overseeing its implementation, with participation of all patriotic and sincere parties and movements … excluding no one.”
The group that organized Sunday’s mass rallies, Tamarod, issued an ultimatum of its own Monday, giving Morsi until the next day at 5 p.m. (1300 GMT) to step down or it would escalate its campaign with larger marches and “complete civil disobedience.”
In a sign of Morsi’s growing isolation, five Cabinet ministers met Monday to consider resigning their posts and joining the protest movement, the state news agency said. The meeting gathered the communications, legal affairs, environment, tourism and water utilities ministers, MENA reported.
Monday’s statement was the military’s second ultimatum. Earlier, el-Sissi gave the two sides a week to reach an agreement. That ultimatum expired on Sunday, with Morsi repeating his longstanding offer for dialogue, which the opposition rejected.
The swiftness of the military’s new statement suggested it was prompted by the stunning turnout by the opposition on Sunday — and the eruptions of violence that point to how the confrontation could spiral into chaos if it continues.
Sunday’s protests were the largest seen in Egypt in the 2½ years of turmoil since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Millions packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the streets outside the Ittihadiya presidential palace and main squares in cities around the country on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration.
The main rallies in Cairo were largely peaceful, but deadly violence broke out in several parts of the country, often when marchers came under gunfire, apparently from Islamists. At least 16 people were killed and more than 780 injured, Health Ministry spokesman Yehya Moussa told state television.
In Cairo, protesters Sunday night attacked the Brotherhood’s main headquarters, pelting it with stones and firebombs. Brotherhood backers barricaded inside opened fire on them in clashes that went on for hours and left eight dead. In the early hours Monday, protesters breached the walls of the six-story luxury villa and stormed inside.
They carted off furniture, files, rugs, blankets, air conditioning units and portraits of Morsi, according to an Associated Press journalist at the scene. One protester emerged with a pistol and handed it over to a policeman outside.
Footage on local TV networks showed smashed windows, blackened walls and smoke billowing out of the fortified villa in the Muqattam district in eastern Cairo. A fire was still raging on one floor hours after the building was stormed. One protester tore down the Muslim Brotherhood sign from the building’s front wall, while another hoisted Egypt’s red, black and white flag out an upper-story window and waved it in the air in triumph.
Morsi’s critics view the Brotherhood headquarters as the seat of real power in Egypt, consistently claiming that the Islamist group’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie and his powerful deputy, Khairat el-Shater, actually call the shots behind Morsi. Morsi and Brotherhood officials have denied this and say they have tried to give opponents a greater voice, only to be spurned.
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