Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (photo courtesy Getty Images)
Sarah Lynch and Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY
CAIRO Egypt's military suspended the constitution Wednesday and ordered new elections, ousting the country's first freely elected president after he defied army demands to implement radical reforms or step down.
Army chief of staff Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, speaking on national television in front of a row of prominent political and religious leaders, said the military was forced to act after President Mohammed Morsi had refused for weeks to set up a national reconciliation government.
Al-Sisi said the chief judge of the constitutional court, backed by technical experts, would have full powers to run the country until the constitution is amended and new elections are held. Adli al-Mansour, the 67-year-old head of Egypt's supreme constitutional court, is to be sworn in Thursday as interim president, state media reported.
The army said the interim government would set the timetable for elections.
Morsi, the country's first democratically elected leader, responded quickly, posting a message on his presidential Facebook page quoting him as saying he rejects the army statement as a "military coup." His aides said he had been moved to an undisclosed location and banned from leaving the country.
In Tahrir Square, the political heart of Cairo, roars of joy erupted from tens of thousands of Egyptians. They danced in the streets, set off fireworks, waved flags and hoisted friends on their shoulders.
"The Egyptian army is the best army on Earth," said Ahmed Mido, 21, a soccer player.
"We are proud of our army," said Jihan Spahi, 55, as she marched into the square early Wednesday night. "It's behind us."
On its website, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood called the move a "conspiracy against legitimacy, a military coup that wastes popular will and brings Egypt back to despotism."
The Brotherhood's TV channel and other Islamist outlets went off the air, and some personnel were arrested, Ahram Online reported. Al Jazeera announced later that its Egyptian service was taken off the air after security forces stormed its Cairo building and arrested journalists and guests.
Al-Sisi warned Egyptians to remain peaceful during the transition period, calling on them to "steer away from violence that will bring more tension and the shedding of blood." He said the military and the security forces would move "firmly and strictly" against any threat to peace.
As a precaution, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo ordered the evacuation of all non-essential staff.
Four Morsi supporters died late Wednesday in clashes with security forces in the northern city of Marsa Matrouh, the governor told Reuters. In Alexandria, the country's second largest city, there were reports of clashes between Mori supporters and opponents, and at least one person was reported dead and 50 hurt, state media reported.
Thousands of Morsi's supporters gathered outside Cairo University to protest the army's announcement.
In its statement, the Brotherhood said that religious scholars "condemn the coup and affirm the necessity of upholding the elected president," and that "millions in many squares in Egypt have started a sit-in in support of legitimacy."
The country's leading Muslim and Christian clerics said at a news conference that they backed the army's action and transition plan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke Tuesday by phone with al-Sisi, the Pentagon said. Officials declined to discuss the content of the call, but the White House has said it is committed to the democratic process in Egypt.
Mohammed ElBaradei, the leader of the liberal opposition, said the "2011 revolution was re-launched" with the declaration by the country's top general, whom Morsi had promoted.
In the end, the army moved quickly and decisively. Al-Sisi spoke only 48 hours after the military issued its ultimatum to Morsi to yield to weekend protests by millions of demonstrators nationwide.
Morsi, in an emotional address Tuesday night, rejected the army's demands, saying he was legitimately elected and could not be forced to resign.
In response, the army chief said, the armed forces felt it had no choice but to dismiss the president and "contain the cause of division and the roots of tensions and confront the challenges to exit the current crisis."
He said the armed forces acted out of its "patriotic and historical responsibility."
It was the second time in 2½ years of political upheaval that the army has ousted the country's leader. President Hosni Mubarak's removal in 2011 set the stage for elections that eventually brought Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to power. He was inaugurated almost exactly one year ago.
In what opponents bitterly described as a "coup," Egypt's military moved tanks and troops into Cairo on Wednesday to prepare for the transfer of power away from Morsi only minutes after he rejected their ultimatum to yield to the political demands of mass protests or step down.
Ahmed Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter who lives in the Nile Delta region north of Cairo, said he considers Tuesday's action a military coup.
"I'm so worried about Egypt," Hassan said. "We don't know what is going on after Morsi goes, or if everything will be fine. I don't know what the liberal groups will do."
He said the military and the judges don't care about human rights. "Maybe tomorrow they will take a lot of people and put them in jail and say it's an order," he added.
Another Morsi supporter foresees civil war.
"The army chose to appease one part of the population against the other," Yasser Soliman told Al-Ahram. "They are basically setting the streets on fire, calling for civil war."
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At least 39 people have died since the protests began on Sunday. Many of the latest deaths occurred after gunfire erupted outside Cairo University in Giza, where pro-Morsi demonstrators gathered to show support for the president, who comes from the 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, the Associated Press reported.
As the deadline approached Wednesday, Morsi rejected demands he step aside and instead called on the military not to "take sides."
"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.
Soon afterward, 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.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers quickly began moving into the streets of the capital, troops took up posts inside the state TV headquarters, and soldiers were reported to be putting up barbed wire barriers around Republican Guard barracks where Morsi had been working.
The president's national security adviser, Essam El-Haddad, called the rapidly unfolding events "a military coup" in a post in English on his official Facebook page and warned of violence if the army moved against pro-Morsi forces.
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"Hundreds of thousands of them have gathered in support of democracy and the Presidency. And they will not leave in the face of this attack," Haddad added. "To move them, there will have to be violence. It will either come from the army, the police, or the hired mercenaries. Either way there will be considerable bloodshed."
In a move to isolate Morsi, the military imposed travel bans on Morsi and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, as well as Badie's deputy, Khairat el-Shater, the Associated Press reported, quoting unidentified officials at the airport.
The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper also reported that the military had placed several leaders of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood under surveillance. The paper said several top leaders were put under house arrest and claimed that arms caches allegedly belonging to the Brotherhood had been located.
Troops were also being deployed to separate the pro-Morsi protesters at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and the anti-Morsi demonstrators in front of the headquarters of the Ittihadiya presidential guard.
The clampdown came only hours after a meeting between al-Sisi and ElBaradei, Egypt's leading democracy advocate, who represents the opposition National Salvation Front coalition and the youth groups leading anti-Morsi protesters.
Also in attendance to discuss the military's proposed political "road map" were Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque, and Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice party members say they refused an invitation to take part in the meeting.
A spokesman for Morsi, Ayman Ali, told Reuters that the president believed it was better "to die standing like a tree" than turn back history.
"It is better for a president, who would otherwise be returning Egypt to the days of dictatorship, from which God and the will of the people has saved us, to die standing like a tree," Ali tells the news agency. "Rather than be condemned by history and future generations for throwing away the hopes of Egyptians for establishing a democratic life."
In an emotional 46-minute speech on national TV Tuesday evening, Morsi warned the military against removing him, saying such action will "backfire on its perpetrators."
He pledged to protect his "constitutional legitimacy" with his life and accused Mubarak loyalists of exploiting the wave of protests to topple his regime and thwart democracy.
"There is no substitute for legitimacy," said Morsi, who at times angrily raised his voice, thrust his fist in the air and pounded the podium. He warned that electoral and constitutional legitimacy "is the only guarantee against violence."
Although Morsi has been in office only a year, his opponents have grown increasingly angry over a deteriorating economic and political situation, as well as what they see as attempts by the Brotherhood to monopolize power.
As the crisis continued, there has been no official protection for protesters, and police even failed to intervene when Cairo's Muslim Brotherhood headquarters was attacked then ransacked this week.