CAIRO - The general command of the Egyptian armed forces is currently holding a crisis meeting, a military source told Reuters on Wednesday.

The meeting was being held hours before the expiry of a deadline set by the army for rival politicians to find a solution to the country's political crisis.

Egypt's state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said it expected President Mohamed Morsi would either step down or be removed from office on Wednesday when a deadline set by the army for resolving the country's political crisis expires.

Egypt's flagship state daily said an army road map for the future would set up a three-member presidential council to be chaired by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

"Al-Ahram learnt that with the end of the 48-hour period set by the armed forces ... it is expected in the hours that follow it, one of two things: either Morsi announces his resignation himself, or the declaration of his removal through the road map for the future set out by the armed forces," it said.

Al-Ahram said the road map would set up a neutral transitional government to be headed by a military leader. The transitional period would last nine to 12 months in which a new constitution would be drafted to set out a path to presidential elections.

Egypt's army commander and Morsi, who represents the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, each pledged his life to defy the other as the hour approached on Wednesday that will trigger a military takeover that was prompted by mass demonstrations.

The military chiefs issued a call to battle in a statement headlined "The Final Hours". They said they were willing to shed blood against "terrorists and fools" after Morsi refused to give up his elected office. Morsi said, "The price ... is my life."

As a mass of revelers on Cairo's Tahrir Square feted the army for saving the revolutionary democracy won there two years ago, supporters of the president's Muslim Brotherhood denounced a "military coup". Some clashed with security forces at Cairo University, where 16 people died and about 200 were wounded.

Military sources told Reuters the army had drafted a plan to sideline Morsi and suspend the constitution after a 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) deadline passes. Coordinated with political leaders, an interim council would rule pending new elections. The sources would not say what was planned for an uncooperative president.

Facing the expiry of a 48-hour ultimatum set by the head of the armed forces that he should agree to a power-sharing deal with his rivals, Morsi broadcast a defiant, if somewhat rambling, address to the nation to defend his "legitimacy" - a word he used repeatedly in the course of 45 minutes.

Liberal opposition leaders, who have vowed not to negotiate with Morsi since the ultimatum was issued, immediately denounced his refusal to go as a declaration of "civil war". The youth movement that organized the mass protests urged the Republican Guard to arrest Morsi immediately and present him for trial.

Three hours after his midnight television appearance, the military high command responded with a post on its Facebook page. The post said they, too, were willing to lay down their lives to defend their position - one which they described as defending the Egyptian people from "terrorists, radicals and fools".

A military source said the message came from General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the armed forces commander appointed by Morsi last year, who issued the ultimatum to politicians on Monday.

It was posted on the official Facebook page of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF. It entered history books as Egypt's ruling institution after the army pushed aside Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring uprising of early 2011.

"It is an honor for us to die rather than that anyone should terrorize or threaten the Egyptian people," it said. "We swear to God, we will sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool.

"Long live Egypt and its people."

It was unclear who fired at whom or who started the violence at Cairo University. Muslim Brotherhood supporters angrily held up rifle and shotgun cartridges after scenes of mayhem, shrouded in teargas. State television quoted a health ministry official as saying 16 people died and about 200 were hurt.

That made it by some way the bloodiest incident in several weeks of street fighting. Eight people were killed the previous day during a siege of the Brotherhood's national headquarters and the movement has said it is under attack from hired "thugs" left over from the days of Mubarak's secret police.

MORSI DEFIANT


"The price of preserving legitimacy is my life," Morsi said in an impassioned, repetitive address to the camera. "Legitimacy is the only guarantee to preserve the country."

In a warning aimed as much at his own militant supporters as at the army, he said: "We do not declare jihad (holy war) against each other. We only wage jihad on our enemies."

Urging Egyptians not to heed the siren calls of what he called remnants of the former authoritarian government, the "deep state" and the corrupt, he said: "Don't be fooled. Don't fall into the trap. Don't let them steal your revolution."

Condemning a coup against their first freely elected leader, tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters took to the streets, clashing with opponents in several towns.

But they were dwarfed by anti-government protesters who turned out in the hundreds of thousands across the nation.

Military sources told Reuters that, assuming the politicians fail to end a year of deadlock before the deadline, the generals have their own draft program ready - although it could be fine-tuned in consultation with willing political parties.

Under the road map, the military would install an interim council, composed mainly of civilians from different political groups and experienced technocrats, to run the country until an amended constitution was drafted within months.

That would be followed by a new presidential election, but parliamentary polls would be delayed until strict conditions for selecting candidates were in force, the sources said.

They would not say how the military intended to deal with Morsi if he refused to go quietly. Some of his Islamist supporters have vowed to defend what they see as the legitimate, democratic order, even if it means dying as martyrs. Some have a history of armed struggle against the state.

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