CAIRO — The fate of Egypt's first democratically elected president hung in the balance Tuesday, hours before a deadline to yield to the demands of millions of protesters or see the military suspend the Constitution, disband Parliament and install a new leadership.
But Islamist President Mohammed Morsi vowed not to resign, and he demanded that the powerful armed forces withdraw the ultimatum, saying he rejected all "dictates," from home or abroad.
In a televised speech to the nation, he pledged to protect his "constitutional legitimacy" with his life and accused loyalists of his autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, of riding the wave of protests to topple his regime.
Morsi's defiant statement sets up a major confrontation between his Islamist supporters and Egyptians angry over what they see as his efforts to impose control by his Muslim Brotherhood since he took office a year ago. Opponents also accuse him of failing to introduce reforms more than two years after the Arab Spring revolution. The opponents say that he has lost his legitimacy through mistakes and power grabs.
Millions of jubilant opponents filled Cairo's historic Tahrir Square, as well as avenues adjacent to two presidential palaces in the capital, and main squares in cities nationwide. After Morsi's speech, they erupted in indignation, banging metal fences to raise a din, some raising their shoes in the air in a show of contempt. "Leave, leave," they chanted.
The president's supporters also increased their presence in the streets of the capital and other cities, after the Muslim Brotherhood and hard-line Islamist leaders called them out to defend what they say is the legitimacy of his administration.
At least 23 people were killed in Cairo and more than 200 injured, according to hospital and security officials who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The latest deaths bring to at least 39 the people who have died since the first day of protests, Sunday, many of them in shootings of anti-Morsi gatherings.
On Monday, the military gave Morsi an ultimatum to meet the protesters' demands within 48 hours. If not, the generals' plan would suspend the Islamist-backed Constitution, dissolve the Islamist-dominated legislature and set up an interim administration headed by the country's chief justice, the state news agency reported Tuesday.
The leaking of the military's so-called political road map appeared aimed at adding pressure on Morsi by showing the public and the international community that the military has a plan that does not involve a coup.
A retired army general with close ties to the military, Hossam Sweilam, confirmed the news agency report's version of the road map. He said a panel of experts would draft a new constitution and the interim administration would be a presidential council led by the Supreme Constitutional Court's chief justice and including the defense minister and representatives of political parties, youth groups, Al-Azhar Mosque and the Coptic Church.
He said the military envisioned a one-year transitional period before presidential elections are held.
On his official Twitter account, Morsi urged the armed forces "to withdraw their ultimatum" and said he rejects any domestic or foreign "dictates."
Fearing that Washington's most important Arab ally would descend into chaos, U.S. officials said they are urging Morsi to take steps to address opposition grievances, telling the protesters to remain peaceful and reminding the army that a coup could have consequences for the massive U.S. military aid package it receives. The officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the delicate diplomacy aimed at calming the unrest and protecting Egypt's status as a bulwark of Mideast stability.
The White House, State Department and Pentagon all declined to comment on any specific steps the administration would like to see taken, saying any actions are for Egypt to decide.
Developments in Egypt are also being closed watched by Israel, which fears a collapse of the Islamist government could threaten the historic peace treaty between the two nations.
While Israeli leaders have been careful not to take sides in Morsi's struggle with protesters, many fear extremist Islamic groups could take advantage of chaos to launch attacks from either Egypt or the Gaza Strip.
Morsi has been cool to Israel, but he has also shown himself to be surprisingly pragmatic. He has allowed military cooperation to continue and at times served as a moderating influence.
Mubarak honored the peace deal and maintained close coordination with the Israeli military.