Egypt’s leading democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, and top Muslim and Coptic Christian clerics met Wednesday with the army chief to discuss a political road map for Egypt only hours before a military ultimatum to the Islamist president was set to expire.

The meeting signaled the military was taking concrete moves toward implementing its plan to replace President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader who came to office a year ago.

Morsi has vowed not to step down in the face of three days of massive street demonstrations calling for his ouster. At least 39 people have died since the protests began on Sunday.

ElBaradei is the leader of the main opposition grouping, the National Salvation Front. He was accompanied in the meeting with army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi by Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque, and Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Under a plan leaked to state media, the military would install a new interim leadership, the Islamist-backed constitution would be suspended and the Islamist-dominated parliament dissolved.

The military has said it would implement its plan once its two-day ultimatum to Morsi expires, between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Egypt time (5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Israel time).

In one of the first signs that the army was beginning to implement its  ultimatum, forces had taken over the state television studios in Cairo, al-Arabiya reported early afternoon Wednesday.

Overnight clashes between President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters and opponents left at least 23 dead, most of them in a single incident of fighting outside Cairo University.

With his political fate hanging in the balance, Morsi on Tuesday demanded that the powerful armed forces withdraw their ultimatum, saying he rejected all “dictates” — from home or abroad.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi addresses the nation in a televised speech on Tuesday. (photo credit: AP Photo/Egyptian State Television)

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi addresses the nation in a televised speech on Tuesday. (photo credit: AP Photo/Egyptian State Television)

In an emotional speech aired live to the nation, Morsi, who a year ago was inaugurated as Egypt’s first freely elected president, 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. He said he was willing to “sacrifice my own blood” for the security and legitimacy of his government and his country.

“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.”

“I have no other option. I have shouldered the responsibility. I will continue shouldering the responsibility,” he said as millions were still gathered in Cairo’s historic Tahrir Square calling for his exit.

The Egyptian president, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was inaugurated on June 30, 2012 after winning Egypt’s first elections, said he wouldn’t allow the revolution to be hijacked by Mubarak-era supporters. Earlier Tuesday, the former Egyptian president reportedly called on Morsi to step down.

Morsi said he would stand up against “any who attempt to shed a drop of blood, drive a wedge between the people or act in violence… I will adhere to this legitimacy and I will stand guardian to this legitimacy.

“The price can be my life. My own life. I am willing to safeguard and protect your lives,” he said. “I send a message, a message of love and a message of appreciation to all the people of Egypt, no matter what their positions are.”

He continued: “If the price for safeguarding legitimacy is my blood, then I am prepared to sacrifice my blood for the cause of safety and legitimacy of this homeland. Do not be fooled. Do not fall into the trap. Do not abandon this legitimacy. I am the guardian of this legitimacy.”

By “legitimacy,” he made clear he meant the constitution, “and only the constitution.”

Supporters of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi wave national flags and his posters during a rally in Nasser City, in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday, July 1, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)
Supporters of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi wave national flags and his posters during a rally in Nasser City, in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday, July 1, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)

The statement showed that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are prepared to run the risk of challenging the army. It also entrenches the lines of confrontation between his Islamist supporters and Egyptians angry over what they see as his efforts to impose control through the Brotherhood and his failures to deal with the country’s multiple problems.

As anti- and pro-Morsi supporters geared for the fourth consecutive day of mass rallies Wednesday, it was clear that Egypt’s crisis has become a struggle over whether a popular uprising can overturn the verdict of the ballot box.

Morsi’s opponents say he has lost his legitimacy through mistakes and power grabs and that their turnout on the streets over the past three days shows the nation has turned against him.

On Tuesday, millions of jubilant, chanting Morsi opponents again filled Cairo’s historic Tahrir Square, as well as avenues adjacent to two presidential palaces in the capital, and main squares in cities nationwide. After Morsi’s speech, they erupted in indignation, banging metal fences to raise a din, some raising their shoes in the air in a show of contempt. “Leave, leave,” they chanted.

The president’s supporters also moved out in increased marches in Cairo and other cities, and stepped up warnings that it will take bloodshed to dislodge him. While Morsi has stuck to a stance that he is defending democracy in Egypt, many of his Islamist backers have presented the fight as one to protect Islam.

Supporters of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi hold sticks and wear protective gear in Nasser City, in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday, July 1, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Supporters of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi hold sticks and wear protective gear in Nasser City, in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday, July 1, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Political violence was more widespread on Tuesday, with multiple clashes between the two camps in Cairo as well as in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and other cities. A march by Morsi supporters outside Cairo University came under fire from gunmen on nearby rooftops.

At least 23 people were killed in Cairo and more than 200 injured, according to hospital and security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Most of the killings took place outside Cairo University in Cairo’s twin city of Giza.

The latest deaths take to at least 39 the people who have died since the first day of protests, Sunday.

On Monday, the military gave Morsi an ultimatum to meet the protesters’ demands within 48 hours. If not, the generals’ plan would suspend the Islamist-backed constitution, dissolve the Islamist-dominated legislature and set up an interim administration headed by the country’s chief justice, the state news agency reported.

The leaking of the military’s so-called political “road map” appeared aimed at adding pressure on Morsi by showing the public and the international community that the military has a plan that does not involve a coup.

On his official Twitter account, Morsi urged the armed forces “to withdraw their ultimatum” and said he rejects any domestic or foreign dictates.”

In the 46-minute speech Tuesday, he implicitly warned the military against removing him, saying such action will “backfire on its perpetrators.”

An Egyptian protester covers his head by a national flag during a demonstration against Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Monday, July 1, 2013 (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

An Egyptian protester covers his head by a national flag during a demonstration against Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Monday, July 1, 2013 (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Fearing that Washington’s most important Arab ally would descend into chaos, US officials said they are urging Morsi to take immediate steps to address opposition grievances, telling the protesters to remain peaceful and reminding the army that a coup could have consequences for the massive American military aid package it receives. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Morsi’s adviser Ayman Ali denied that the US asked Egypt to call early presidential elections and said consultations were continuing to reach national conciliation and resolve the crisis. He did not elaborate.

The army has insisted it has no intention to take power. But the reported road map showed it was ready to replace Morsi and make a sweeping change in the ramshackle political structure that has evolved since Mubarak’s fall in February 2011.

The constitution and domination of the legislature after elections held in late 2011-early 2012 are two of the Islamists’ and Brotherhood’s most valued victories — along with Morsi’s election last year.

At least one anti-Morsi TV station put up a clock counting down to the end of the military’s ultimatum, putting it at 4 p.m. Wednesday (1400 GMT, 10 a.m. EDT), though a countdown clock posted online by Morsi opponents put the deadline at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT, 11 a.m. EDT). The military did not give a precise hour.

Morsi also faced new fissures within his leadership.

Three government spokesmen — two for Morsi and one for the prime minister — quit on Tuesday as part of high-level defections that underscored Morsi’s increasing isolation and fallout from the military’s ultimatum. Five Cabinet ministers, including the foreign minister, resigned Monday, and a sixth, Sports Minister El-Amry Farouq, also quit Tuesday.

One ultraconservative Salafi party, al-Nour, also announced its backing for early elections. The party was once an ally of Morsi but in recent months has broken with him.

In a significant move, opposition parties and the youth movement behind the demonstrations agreed that reform leader and Nobel Peace laureate ElBaradei would represent them in any negotiations on the country’s political future. The move appeared aimed at presenting a unified voice in a post-Morsi system, given the widespread criticism that the opposition has been too fragmented to present an alternative to the Islamists.