Opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans during a… (Amr Nabil / Associated Press )
CAIRO -- A presumed deadline set by Egypt's military passed Wednesday without any indication whether it planned to seize control of the nation and end the embattled one-year rule of President Mohamed Morsi.
The military had given Morsi, the country's first Islamist president, until 5 p.m. Cairo time (8 a.m. PDT) to either form a coalition government to quell months of unrest or face the prospect of a coup. But the military command had already signaled that the deadline was flexible.
The army’s Facebook page carried a statement saying: "The general command of the armed forces confirms it has not announced any specific times to issue any statements or speeches.”
As the deadline passed, military commanders were in an emergency meeting with opposition figures and others. Egyptian media reported that Morsi was still refusing to step down but said a coalition government, which he had earlier rejected, might be a way out of the crisis.
It was not immediately clear whether Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement was represented at the talks. Its spokesman, Gehad Haddad, earlier tweeted: "The only plan that any people have in face of an attempted coup is to stand in front of the tanks."
Morsi also has rebuffed the ultimatum, saying he will defend the constitution with his life.
"We sacrifice for our country, and I am the first to sacrifice. If the cost of legitimacy is my life, I will pay it gladly," he told the nation early Wednesday.
The generals have been just as defiant. Helicopters buzzed over Cairo, and the army’s Facebook page carried an ominous post titled: "The Final Hours."
“The general commander of the armed forces has mentioned that it is more honorable for us to die than for the Egyptian people to be intimidated or threatened ... and we swear to God that we will sacrifice for Egypt and its people with our blood against any terrorist, fundamentalist, or ignorant [person],” the statement said.
Fear, excitement and apprehension have gripped the nation, which two years ago overthrew Hosni Mubarak only to face economic turmoil, political divisions and deadly protests that have marred the path toward democracy. Pro- and anti-Morsi supporters clashed through Tuesday night, including fighting at Cairo University, where 16 people were killed and more than 200 injured.
The military is exasperated at Morsi and the Brotherhood, but the president said he has the legitimacy of being Egypt’s first freely elected leader. Millions of anti-government demonstrators have demanded that Morsi step aside and call early elections.
Such a scenario would be a major defeat for the Brotherhood, a once-outlawed organization that has waited more than 80 years to impose its brand of political Islam on the country. But the forces of the secular state, founded after a 1952 military coup against British rule, are suspicious of Morsi’s intentions and the Brotherhood’s exclusion of other political voices.
The military, though, faces steep risks with a coup. It has said it will tear up the new Islamist-backed constitution and form a transitional coalition government made up of civilians. The army ruled the country with difficulty from 2011 until Morsi took office, and if it appears to remain it power too long, it will likely face a new backlash.
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Hassieb is a special correspondent.