CAIRO - President Mohammed Morsi refused to step down Wednesday and called on the military not to "take sides" even as the army chief of staff met with opposition figures and religious leaders to discuss its "road map" for dramatic political reform.
In a last minute statement before an afternoon deadline imposed by the military, Morsi again rejected army 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."
The military had called on Morsi 48 hours ago to yield to the mass protests or step aside to defuse the political deadlock that had sent millions of protesters into the street.
State media reported that the "road map" would include a new interim leadership, installed by the military, and a suspension of the Islamist-backed constitution and the Islamist-dominated parliament.
The BBC reported that the army asked all but essential staff to leave the state TV building ahead of the deadline, which expired around 4:30 p.m. local time (10:30 a.m. ET.).
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.
The meeting between opposition groups and army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was announced by opposition spokesman Khaled Dwoud in a live telephone interview with state television.
It included Mohamed 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 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.
Mohamed Abou El Ghar, president of the Egyptian Social Democratic party, tells USA TODAY that the opposition is demanding that Morsi must go, and that there should be a "civilian, temporary, honorary president, preferably from the higher constitutional court and a civilian prime minister with a small cabinet to run the country in the coming period."
"The military and the police should only guard the borders and the security inside the country," he said. "So, it should be clear in the minds of the West that this is not a coup. This is not a military coup."
Moving forward, he added, the opposition does not want to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood. "We want the Muslim Brothers to share in the future elections and the future parliament," he said.
As the deadline loomed, Morsi showed little interest in compromise, however, going on national TV Tuesday night to reject calls for his ouster.
A spokesman for Morsi, Ayman Ali, told Reuters that that 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, Morsi warned the military against removing him, saying such action will "backfire on its perpetrators."
Morsi, who took office almost exactly one year ago, pledged to protect his "constitutional legitimacy" with his life.
He accused loyalists of his ousted autocratic predecessor Hosni Mubarak 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."
Morsi said he is prepared to sacrifice his blood for the sake of the homeland, and he accused former regime loyalists of battling democracy.
Although Morsi has only been in office 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.
Some estimates put the total number of people killed in clashes nationwide over the past several days at more than 40.
Violence also permeates Tahrir Square, where 91 women have been sexually assaulted and in some cases raped over the past four days, Human Rights Watch said. One woman needed surgery after she was raped with a "sharp object," volunteers working to prevent sexual assault told the human rights group. Others were beaten with sticks, metal chains and chairs. In some cases, they were assaulted for up to 45 minutes.
Anti-Morsi protesters are largely hoping the military will interfere to resolve the current crisis - a shift from when many sought to push the establishment aside and make way for a democratic state and civilian rule after generals governed the country for more than 16 months in the nation's post-revolution period.
But in locations across Cairo on Tuesday night, Morsi supporters demanded that Morsi remain in his post as the county is no closer to mending deep political divisions.