CAIRO - In what opponents bitterly described as a "coup," Egypt's military moved tanks and troops into Cairo on Wednesday to prepare for the almost certain ouster of President Mohammed Morsi only minutes after he rejected their ultimatum to yield to the political demands of mass protests or step down.
In imposing its deadline two days ago, the military had warned that if Morsi did not act, they would step in to suspend the constitution and Islamist-dominated parliament and set up a civilian leadership council.
The state news agency reported late Wednesday that the army plan, to be announced shortly, would include a brief short period of interim rule to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections.
The agency said opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei and religious leaders, who met earlier in the day with the army chief of staff, would issue the statement spelling out details of the plan.
Members of his Muslim Brotherhood say his whereabouts are uncertain as communications are disrupted between the country's top civilian leaders.
It was the second time in 2½ years of political upheaval that the army appeared to position itself to remove the country's leader. The ouster of President Hosni Mubarak 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.
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 on Wednesday, Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, 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.
"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 have 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 army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah 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 believes it is 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.
Sarah Lynch and Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY
Contributing: Doug Stanglin reported from McLean, Va.; Associated Press