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Protests continue as Egypt’s deadline looms

CAIRO (CNN) — One deadline looms Tuesday for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, and another hangs over his head for Wednesday.

Opposition protesters are threatening to march Tuesday evening on Cairo’s presidential palace if Morsy does not step down by then.

And Wednesday evening marks the expiration of a 48-hour deadline imposed by the Egypt’s military to “meet the demands of the people” or face a restoration of order by the army.

But the army stopped short of saying that it was suggesting a coup.

The ultimatum was meant to push all factions toward a national consensus; the armed forces aren’t looking to be part of the political or ruling circles, a spokesman, Col. Ahmed Ali, said Monday in a written statement.

While insisting they want no direct role in national politics, the generals appeared instead to be pressuring Egypt’s first freely elected president to restructure his government.

The steps could include reducing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in his Cabinet and calling early presidential and parliamentary elections, a source close to highly placed members of Egypt’s leadership told CNN.

Thousands still demonstrating

Demonstrations continued Tuesday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where thousands of protesters massed, cheering as Apache helicopters buzzed the crowd.

Canada said Tuesday it was closing its embassy in Cairo until further notice “for security reasons.”

On Tuesday, the Obama administration urged Morsy to call early elections and warned the Egyptian military that it risks losing U.S. aid if it carries out a military coup amid the political crisis, senior administration officials told CNN.

But the officials did not say Morsy should step down immediately.

“We are saying to him, ‘Figure out a way to go for new elections,’ ” a senior official said. “That may be the only way that this confrontation can be resolved.”

The officials said nothing in the Egyptian Constitution gives Morsy the authority to call for new elections, but said that may be the only way to end the crisis.

Officials have also warned the Egyptian military that a coup would trigger U.S. legislation that calls for cutting off all U.S. aid.

On Monday, Obama encouraged Morsy in a telephone call to ensure that his government represents all Egyptians, “including the many Egyptians demonstrating.”

Morsy’s government has insisted that its decisions are legitimate, because it was democratically elected.

Obama addressed this argument directly in his conversation with Morsy.

“He stressed that democracy is about more than elections,” the statement said.

Obama reiterated to Morsy that the United States does not support any party or movement in Egypt, it said. He called for an end to violence on all sides and expressed particular concern about sexual assaults on women.

State-funded Egyptian daily Al-Ahram has reported 46 sexual assaults during anti-Morsy protests in Egypt since Sunday, citing the volunteer group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment.

A Dutch journalist was reportedly raped Friday while covering protests, the Committee to Protect Journalists said. She was hospitalized and underwent surgery before flying back to the Netherlands.

Over the weekend, an Egyptian journalist died in a bomb attack on a Muslim Brotherhood office; four other local journalists were beaten and their camera equipment destroyed or stolen. Two Egyptian journalists were wounded by shotgun fire.

Monday Tahrir celebration

Protesters in Tahrir Square cheered the military statement as it was read over radios and cell phones Monday. They roared as military helicopters passed overhead at dusk, trailing Egyptian flags and the banners of the armed services. After nightfall, they waved flags, honked horns and set off fireworks.

“Everyone is talking as if Morsy is officially out of power and the Brotherhood is officially out of power, and everyone is celebrating,” Bassem Sabry, an Egyptian writer who took part in Monday’s protests, told CNN’s “Connect the World.”

But Morsy’s office early Tuesday called the democratically elected government the most important achievement of his nation’s revolution, adding, “Egypt, by all its power, will not allow the country to go backwards under any circumstances.”

Morsy’s supporters held smaller rallies Monday in Cairo neighborhoods away from Tahrir Square.

In the face of the anti-government protests, which began over the weekend, five ministers announced their resignations Monday. The latest was Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency reported.

Morsy’s failings

Morsy, a U.S.-educated Islamist, was elected Egypt’s president in June 2012, but critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian during his year in power.

And he has failed to revive Egypt’s economy, which crashed when the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak drove tourists away.

That has disaffected many of his supporters among Egypt’s poor and middle classes, said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

“That some of the revolutionaries are calling on the army to return to politics is a testament to how polarized Egypt is a year after the election of Morsy,” Gerges said. “Think of the millions of people who cheered Morsy after his election. Think of the millions of Egyptians who pinned their hopes on Morsy.

“A year later, now, the millions of Egyptians who cheered for Morsy are saying he must go.”

Gerges questioned Morsy’s ability to continue to lead but said he doubted the military would depose him. Such a move “would plunge Egypt into a greater legal, political and institutional crisis,” he said.

The military will want to see the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood reduced in government and in the constitution, Gerges said.

Mubarak had long repressed the Islamic political movement, but it is now the nation’s most powerful political force.

Divided opposition

The opposition Tamarod (“rebel”) campaign has called for nationwide protests, civil disobedience and a march on the presidential palace if Morsy doesn’t leave office Tuesday.

Demonstrators say they have collected 17 million signatures — 4 million more than the number who voted Morsy into the presidency — calling for him to go.

The opposition comprises various groups and loose coalitions, some of which are loyal to the ousted Mubarak government, while others want the army to intervene.

AbdulMawgoud Dardery, a former member of parliament and a Muslim Brotherhood representative, told CNN’s “Amanpour” that the military could be an “honest broker” in a national dialogue. He said Morsy has reached out to opposition leaders many times, but the opposition “is afraid of democracy.”

“It failed in the previous five elections we had in Egypt since the revolution, and they don’t want to fail a sixth time,” he said. “That’s why they’re going to street politics.”

National security

Opponents blame Morsy’s policies for a breakdown in law and order.

Adding to the anger, a gas shortage has Egyptians waiting at pumps for hours.

Monday’s military statement called the crisis a grave threat to national security and praised the demonstrators as determined and admirable.

“Wasting more time will only lead to more division and fighting, which we have and continue to warn against,” the military said in its statement.

The developments were being closely watched around the region and in the United States, Egypt’s leading ally.

Under Mubarak’s rule, Washington provided tens of billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Egypt; it has pledged $1 billion to the post-Mubarak government.

CNN’s Elise Labott, Ben Wedeman, Ian Lee, Housam Ahmed and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.

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