Hassan Ammar, Associated Press
CAIRO — Egypt's military moved to tighten its control of key institutions Wednesday and slapped a travel ban on President Mohammed Morsi and top allies in preparation for an almost certain push to remove the Islamist president with the expiration of an afternoon deadline.
Just before the military's deadline expired, Morsi repeated a vow not to step down, and one of his top advisers said Egypt is experiencing a military coup.
For the second time in 2½ years of political upheaval, the powerful army appears to be positioned to remove the country's leader. But this time, it would be ousting a democratically elected president, the first in Egypt's history — making its move potentially explosive.
Soon after the deadline passed, a military helicopter circled over the anti-Morsi crowds in Cairo's central Tahrir Square, which was transformed into a sea of furiously waving Egyptian flags. "Leave, leave," they chanted to Morsi, electrified as they waited to hear of an army move.
Millions were in the main squares of major cities nationwide, demanding Morsi's removal, in the fourth day of the biggest anti-government rallies the country has seen, surpassing even those in the uprising that ousted against his autocratic predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
The military on Monday had given Morsi an ultimatum to meet the protesters' demands within 48 hours, or it would intervene and impose a plan to suspend the constitution, dissolve parliament and replace him with a civilian leadership council. That deadline expired Wednesday afternoon.
Morsi's Islamist supporters have vowed to resist what they call a coup against democracy, and have also taken to the streets by the tens of thousands. At least 39 people have been killed in clashes since Sunday, raising fears of further bloodshed.
Earlier in the day, the head of the army, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, met with leading reform advocate Mohammed ElBaradei, Egypt's top Muslim cleric — Al-Azhar Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb — and Coptic Pope Tawadros II to discuss its political road map, a spokesman for the senior opposition National Democratic Front, Khaled Daoud, said on state TV.
Also attending were a representative of the new youth movement behind this week's protests and some members of the ultraconservative Salafi movements, a Defense Ministry official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
A travel ban was put on Morsi and the head of his Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, as well as Badie's deputy Khairat el-Shater, according to officials at the airport, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Also banned from leaving the country were the Brotherhood's former leader Mahdi Akef, senior Brotherhood figure Mohammed el-Beltagi, a major Salafi preacher close to the Brotherhood Safwat Hegazy and the leader of the Islamist Wasat party Abou Ela Madi and his deputy Essam Sultan.
In a last-minute statement before the deadline, Morsi again rejected the military's intervention, saying abiding by his electoral legitimacy was the only way to prevent violence. He criticized the military for "taking only one side."
"One mistake that cannot be accepted, and I say this as president of all Egyptians, is to take sides," he said in the statement issued by his office. "Justice dictates that the voice of the masses from all squares should be heard," he said, repeating his offer to hold dialogue with his opponents.
The free electing of a president had been one of the aspirations of the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak. Morsi's opponents say they want to remove a president who has lost his legitimacy by trying to monopolize power with Islamists — even if it takes army intervention to bring in new leadership and put the country on a more democratic path.
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