CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's Islamist president told his opponents to use elections not protests to try to change the government and said the military should focus on its role as the nation's defenders in a nationally televised address on Wednesday, days before the opposition plans massive street rallies aimed at removing him from office.
Mohammed Morsi's words to the military came amid opposition hopes that the powerful generals will protect their protests Sunday in an implicit show of support. Morsi's supporters accuse the opposition of fomenting a coup. Speaking at a giant conference hall packed with people, Morsi reminded his audience that "all agree" that the president is the supreme commander of the armed forces.
"There are some who don't want the armed forces and the presidency to have a healthy relationship," Morsi said. "All state institutions work in harmony and with discipline under the leadership of the head of state."
The audience, packed with Cabinet members, officials from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters, cheered his remarks on the military, which at times sounded like a rebuke to Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Sitting on the front row, el-Sissi, sat silently. Days earlier he issued a sharp demand that both sides in the crisis reconcile and a warning that the military will not sit by if the nation is endangered by the political divisions.
Earlier on Wednesday, military officials said they were bringing reinforcements closer to Egypt's main cities, apparently aimed at keeping security if violence erupts on Sunday.
In his 2 ½-hour address, Morsi defended his performance in his first year in office, admitting to making mistakes but also claiming achievements. At one point he apologized for fuel shortages which have caused long lines at gas stations and have increased frustration and anger at the government. "I am saddened by the lines, and I wish I could join in and wait in line, too," he said. At another, he apologized to the nation's youth for not doing enough to involve them in the new political system and ordered Cabinet ministers and provincial governors to appoint assistants under the age of 40.
But he offered no compromises in the confrontation with his opponents. Those organizing the protests for Sunday — the anniversary of Morsi's inauguration — say he must go because he has mismanaged the country, given a monopoly on decision-making to the Brotherhood and his Islamist allies and has encroached on the judiciary.
Protesters are hoping to bring out massive crowds Sunday, saying they have tapped into widespread discontent over economic woes, rising prices and unemployment, power cuts and lack of security.
As Morsi spoke, several thousand of his opponents gathered in Tahrir square, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, chanted "erhal!" or leave. Some chanted "the people want to overthrow the regime." Several took off their shoes and held them up in a sign of contempt.
Morsi took aim at his opponents and critics. He demanded "some in the media stop spreading rumors." He told the judiciary, with which he has clashed repeated over the past year, to stay out of politics, though he added he "respects very, very much" their status.
He told his political opponents to "enter elections if you want to change the government" and scolded them for brushing off his past appeals to hold a dialogue on the nation's problems. "I have been surprised" by their refusals, he said repeatedly.
Morsi said protests were a legitimate way "to raise your opinion" but they cannot be "used to impose your opinion."
Morsi's supporters say the protest organizers are trying to overturn democracy by reversing the election victories of Morsi and his Islamist allies. They have accused Mubarak loyalists of trying to foment a coup.
In the long speech, Morsi was often animated, at times angry, raising his voice. He frequently departed from his prepared remarks, switching for formal Arabic to Egyptian dialect to make jokes and present a common-man image. He was rewarded with rounds of applause from his supporters who, after the address, chanted "Oh president, we love you!"
On the whole, the address was a bid by Morsi to present himself as the nation's safest pair of hands at a very difficult time, something that he sought to convey with talk about outside plots to destabilize Egypt and Mubarak loyalists trying to undermine his government.
He pledged "radical and quick" reforms in state institutions to address public complaints. He demanded the Cabinet and provincial governors remove all officials "who have caused crises for the people."
He also announced steps against gas stations suspected in selling subsidized fuel on the black market — a sign of what a major political issue the gas lines have become.
He blamed the security woes on "thugs," some of whom he contended were paid to foment chaos.
He also promised to form a panel to draft amendments to the Islamist-backed constitution passed in a December referendum, an offer that is similar to one he made about six months ago but never bore fruition.
Morsi's opponents calculate they can force him out through the sheer number of people they bring into the streets starting Sunday. But they are looking to the military to protect their crowds against possible attacks by hard-line Islamists.
Security officials, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said army commanders have carried out reconnaissance missions in areas and facilities they intend to protect.
The commander of the central military region on Tuesday inspected a media complex on the western outskirts of Cairo that houses several TV networks, some critical of Morsi. The complex was besieged at least twice in recent months by Islamists loyal to Morsi attempting to intimidate the networks and hosts of talk shows critical of the president.
Besides that complex, the military plans to protect the massive Nile-side building housing state TV, the Suez Canal, the Cabinet offices and parliament.
Morsi's supporters have accused organizers of the weekend rally of planning to use violence, but the protesters have repeatedly vowed to keep their demonstrations peaceful.
Morsi backers plan a rally of their own in Cairo on Friday for the second successive week. In last Friday's rally, hard-line Islamists addressing the crowd vowed to "smash" the demonstrating opponents, whom they denounced as Mubarak loyalists.