Egypt's military moved to tighten its control of key institutions Wednesday, sending troops backed with armored vehicles to the heart of Cairo and slapping 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.
But on his Facebook page, Morsi's top foreign policy adviser Essam al-Haddad wrote, "For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let's call what is happening by its real name: Military coup."
At the main pro-Morsi rally in Cairo, thousands of his Islamist supporters chanted, "Wake up el-Sissi, Morsi is my president."
"We will not bring back the military rule," they chanted outside the Rabia al-Adawiya Mosque. "Will not happen, will not happen," they shouted.
The army has insisted it is not carrying out a coup, but acting on the will of the people to clear the way for a new leadership. Under a plan leaked to state media, the military would install a new interim leadership, the Islamist-backed constitution suspended and the Islamist-dominated parliament dissolved.
But on Wednesday it clearly was positioning itself to maintain control during any unrest sparked by a move on Morsi.
The military beefed up its presence inside the mammoth headquarters of state TV on the banks of the Nile in central Cairo. Crack troops were deployed in news production areas. Officers from the army's media department moved inside the newsroom and were monitoring output, though not yet interfering, staffers said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the arrangements.
State TV is run by the information minister, a Muslim Brotherhood member appointed by Morsi, and its coverage had largely been in favor of the government. But in the past two days, the coverage saw a marked shift, with more balanced reporting showing anti-Morsi protests along with those supporting him. State radio has seen a similar shift.
The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper — which also seemed to be following a military line — reported that the military had placed several leaders of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood under surveillance.
The paper said several top Brotherhood leaders have been put under house arrest, though there was no immediate confirmation of which figures it was referring to. It also said arms caches allegedly belonging to the Brotherhood have been located.
Airport officials said screening departing passengers has been tightened to ensure leaders of the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups don't slip out with the help of sympathetic airport employees.
In a speech late Tuesday night, Morsi vowed not to step down and pledged to defend his legitimacy with his life in the face of the massive street protests.