CAIRO - Egypt’s military on Wednesday deposed Mohammed Morsi, the nation’s first freely elected president, suspending the constitution, installing an interim government and insisting it was responding to the millions of Egyptians who had opposed Morsi’s Islamist agenda and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The military intervention marked a tumultuous new phase in the politics of the Arab world’s most populous country, which overthrew Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011.
In an announcement read on state television, the military said it had taken the extraordinary steps not to seize power for itself but to ensure that "confidence and stability are secured for the people."
Under a "road map" for a post-Morsi government, the announcement said the constitution would be suspended and plans would be expedited for new presidential elections while an interim government is in charge.
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The announcement came after the armed forces deployed tanks and troops in Cairo and other cities restricted Morsi’s movements and convened an emergency meeting of top civilian and religious leaders to devise the details of how the interim government and new elections would proceed.
Ahramonline, the government’s official English-language website, said the military had informed Morsi that he was no longer head of state. There was no word on Morsi’s whereabouts.
The developments followed the lapse of a 48-hour deadline imposed by the military generals on the increasingly isolated president to meet the demands of millions of Egyptians disaffected with the one-year-old governance of Morsi, who had been increasingly criticized by a broad range of Egyptians.
By 6:30 p.m. military forces began moving around Cairo. Tanks and troops headed for the presidential palace - although it was unclear whether Morsi was inside - while other soldiers ringed the nearby square where tens of thousands of the president’s supporters were rallying.
Many of the Islamists had armed themselves with makeshift clubs, shields made of potcovers or metal scraps and plastic hard hats, and there were small scuffles with the better-armed soldiers. Some soldiers fired their weapons in the air. But the military forces held back.
Soldiers also were seen erecting barbed-wire fences and barriers around a barracks where Morsi may have been working.
Hours before the military’s announcement, Morsi’s senior foreign policy adviser, Essam el-Haddad, issued an open letter on his Web page lamenting what he called the imminent takeover of Egypt’s first freely elected government.
"As I write these lines I am fully aware that these may be the last lines I get to post on this page," he wrote. "For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let’s call what is happening by its real name: Military coup."
Security officials said the military’s intelligence service had banned any travel by Morsi and senior Islamist aides, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, and his influential deputy, Khairat el-Shater.
With millions of Egyptians waiting to see what the military would do, Morsi reiterated in a Facebook posting what he had said in a long televised speech Tuesday night - that he was the legitimate president of Egypt.
"The presidency reaffirms that violating constitutional legitimacy threatens democratic practice by veering off the right track and threatens the freedom of expression that Egypt has lived since the revolution," the statement said.
Among those called to the meeting with the generals was Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. diplomat who has been tapped by the protesters demanding Morsi’s ouster as one of their negotiators over a new interim government.
ElBaradei has been an outspoken critic of Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, the constitution they pushed to a referendum and the previous period of military rule. He has declined to comment in his current position. News agencies reported that top Muslim and Christian religious authorities were invited as well.
Gehad el-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, vowed that the group would not bend in its defiance of the military.
"The only plan," he said in a statement posted online, "is to stand in front of the tanks."
The escalating tensions between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and their opponents continued to spur street violence overnight. Egyptian officials said at least 18 people had died and more than 300 were injured in fighting near an Islamist rally in support of Morsi near Cairo University. State media reported that the dead included victims from both sides and that most died of gunshot wounds.
Even before the military deadline expired, there were signs of a new crackdown on Morsi’s allies in the Muslim Brotherhood. Police officials said Wednesday that they had arrested six bodyguards protecting the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader.
Police initially reported that more than 40 Islamists were wounded by birdshot, and Islamist witnesses later said police had begun shooting at them as well. But after the initial attack, the Islamists began lashing out and beating people suspected of being assailants. Opponents of the Islamists said they too were shooting as the fighting continued through the night.
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By morning, the area around Cairo University was filled with burned cars, smoldering piles of garbage, makeshift barricades, and torn textbook pages in English, French and German. Campaign posters from last year’s historic presidential election still hung on the walls.
A few hundred Islamists and a smaller crowd of their opponents clustered in opposing camps, both sides armed with clubs and sticks. A sign hung by Morsi’s supporters declared: "To the coup supporters, our blood will haunt you and you will pay an expensive price for every spilled drop of our blood."
Some of the Islamists gathered belong to more conservative factions than the Muslim Brotherhood and said the efforts to oust Morsi demonstrated that democracy itself could not be trusted.
"Isn’t this the democracy they wanted?" asked Mahmoud Taha, 40, a trader. "Didn’t we do what they asked?"
"We don’t believe in democracy to begin with; it’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it and we followed them and then this is what they do," he said. "They’re protesting against an elected democracy."
His friend who gave his name as Abu Hamza, 41, said: "This is a conspiracy against religion. They just don’t want an Islamist group to rule."
All said they were bracing for a return to the repression Islamists endured under the government of Mubarak.
"Of course. What else are they going to do?" said Ahmed Sami, 22, a salesman.
Their opponents were vitriolic.
"God willing, there will be no Muslim Brother left in the country today," said Mohamed Saleh, 52, a laborer armed with long shaft of timber labeled "martyr in the making."
"Let them get exiled or find rocks to hide underneath like they used to do, or go to prisons; it doesn’t matter," he said. "No such a thing as ’an Islamist party’ shall exist after today."