CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood early Tuesday called on its supporters to take to the streets to protect the legitimacy of President Mohammed Morsi after a second day of massive protests demanded the resignation of the countrys first democratically elected president.
Within minutes of the Brotherhood issuing its summons, pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators reportedly clashed in Mahala in the Nile Delta, and pro-Morsi crowds were reported assembling in Giza, an impoverished Cairo district, to march on anti-Morsi crowds in Tahrir Square, a 10-minute walk away.
Pro-Morsi crowds also headed for the presidential palace, where tens of thousands of anti-Morsi demonstrators have held sway for two days.
Gehad El-Haddad, the Brotherhoods spokesman, used his Twitter feed to urge Egyptians to go to the streets all across the country in refusal of any attempted coup, a reference to the militarys ultimatum, delivered Monday, giving the Morsi government and its opponents 48 hours to resolve their differences or the military would intervene in the conflict.
We call for respect for the democratically elected choice of the ppl, El-Haddad tweeted, using the hash tags #National Coalition for #Legitimacy.
At 1:30 a.m. Morsi's office issued a statement saying that it had not approved the military's 48-hour deadline and that the president continued to see himself as Egypt's legitimate leader.
"The president continues to hold consultations with all national forces in order to secure the path of democratization and the protection of the popular will."
The sudden appearance of Brotherhood supporters on the streets added new tension to a country already stretched taut by the gigantic outpouring of anti-Morsi sentiment that brought as many as 14 million people into the streets on Sunday, marking Morsis first anniversary in office with demands that he resign.
The countrys military added to that tension Monday when it had a statement read on state television setting the 48-hour deadline for a resolution and warning that if it were not met, the military would dictate a roadmap for a solution.
The statement set off jubilation among many in the crowds who thought the announcement meant that Morsi would have to go. But the military did not say what its roadmap might require or what steps it would take to enforce it.
The early Tuesday call for Brotherhood supporters to take to the streets made clear that Morsi and his backers would not go quietly. Instead, they insisted that the process that saw him elected over 13 other candidates must be respected.
We condemn some opposition for resorting to violence as a means of political expression, El-Haddad tweeted.
It was a dramatic end to a 24-hour period that had begun with hundreds of thousands of protesters chanting Morsi Ir-hal, Arabic for leave, and portended violent clashes in the hours and days ahead.
In Cairos iconic Tahrir Square, in scenes reminiscent of the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, thousands celebrated as though Morsi had already resigned. Car horns, fireworks and chants were so loud that it was at times deafening and with no sign of letting up, despite conflicting statements from an increasingly fractured opposition of how it should respond next.
Some opposition leaders urged protesters to remain until Morsi resigned and was replaced in a transitional period by the military or new elections. Others called for new elections, despite no clear alternative to Morsi. Some denounced the prospect of military intervention, recalling the 18 months when the military ruled after Muabrak stepped down.
We dont want to go through another transitional period under the militarys rule. They have ruined the country, Ahmed Maher, the leader of the 6th of April Movement, one of the leading forces that toppled Mubarak, told McClatchy.
With such divisions and a president unwilling to budge, the nation appeared to have little choice but to wait until the 48 hours had passed and see what the military would do next.
In its statement, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled the country for the 18 months between the resignation of Mubarak and Morsis inauguration, did not say how the two sides were expected to reconcile within the deadline when theyd been unable to do so for the past year.
Would talks among the president, his Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the fractured opposition suffice? Or would it require a referendum or early presidential election?
Nobody knew. Regardless, on the streets of this nation, many interpreted the militarys six-minute statement, read on state television, as some combination of soft military coup and a referendum on Morsis rapidly declining popularity.
At least five of Morsis ministers resigned Monday, as did a provincial governor. The streets erupted in cheers, with protesters who a year ago were chanting Down, down military rule now putting officers on their shoulders and carrying them through the streets.
When Apache helicopters flew overhead, with the Egyptian flag draped beneath, thousands gathered outside the presidential palace roared their approval.
The national security now is at serious risk because of the developments in the country. It is our responsibility to fend off those dangers, a stern voice announced on television, while the screen displayed a picture of the Egyptian flag and minister of defense Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who also is the head of the armed forces. The armed forces had sensed earlier the seriousness of the current situation and the demands of the people. Therefore, it had given all political forces a week to agree and get out of the crises, but the week had passed without any action or initiative, which made people take to the streets with persistence and insistence with their own freedom.
Later, state television reported that Morsi had met Monday evening with el-Sissi and with his prime minister, Hesham Kandil. Morsis government announced it would hold a news conference at 9 p.m., then canceled it.
After the meeting, the military issued a second statement, saying it had no interest in entering politics or staging a coup. Rather it said it sought a quick solution to the political impasse in a way that honors the pulse of the Egyptian people.
Morsis office said he had not reviewed the first statement before it was released, and it was not clear if he had reviewed the second.
The largest opposition group, the liberal National Salvation Front, urged Egyptians to stay on the streets until Morsi stepped down. A new opposition group, Tamarod, or Rebel, gave Morsi until 5 p.m. Tuesday or said it would call for civil disobedience.
Other revolutionaries rejected the return of military rule, even temporarily.
Morsi has to save himself and save the country and resign, said Maher of the 6th of April Movement.
The military statements marked another tumultuous turn of events in what has been more than two years of turmoil, as Egypt transitioned from six decades under civilian-military partnership to a contentious 18-month period under military rule to a year under a democratically elected civilian government to a period of uncertainty.
Perhaps the most succinct description of events over the past two years here came in the form of a tweet: Deja coup.
Egypts current constitution allows for a president to be removed only by a legislative referendum. But there is no legislature; after the countrys Supreme Court ordered the lower house of parliament dissolved over election irregularities, Morsi gave himself legislative powers until an election could be held in the fall. Under Egypts new constitution, passed in December, Egypt has no vice president.
Any power that refrains from the constitution is representing a call for vandalism and chaos, Yaser Hamza, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, told the Al Ahram newspaper.
The militarys statement came after an unprecedented number of Egyptians turned out Sunday at protests timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Morsis inauguration. Some officials estimates of the crowds put their number as high as 14 million, or one of every six Egyptians.
While largely peaceful, violence erupted in the late hours of the protests at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo, where eight people died, according to government figures. Witnesses said protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the building and those inside responded with gunfire. Neither the police nor the military intervened.
Another six were killed around the country and 757 were injured, according to Health Ministry statements.
Morsi once enjoyed a 75 percent approval rating, but that fell precipitously to 23 percent over the last year, amid a collapsing economy, a polarized political situation and an Egypt increasingly defined and led by the Brotherhood.
The turning point came last fall, when he declared that his decisions were above judicial review and his backers hurriedly passed a constitution. There were deadly clashes in front of the presidential palace then, and Morsi appeared to have lost the majoritys support.
But for all the euphoria on the streets, there was no promise that the militarys ultimatum would deliver the peoples demand for stability or the hope of an improving economy. Many remembered that the economy and the political situation were not much better during the 18 months between Mubarak and Morsi, when the military ruled, and a prolonged period of uncertainty was unlikely to bring back investment or tourists.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef