CAIRO -- Egypt's military warned on Saturday of "disastrous consequences" if the crisis that sent tens of thousands of protesters back into the streets is not resolved, signaling the army's return to an increasingly polarized and violent political scene.
The military said serious dialogue is the "best and only" way to overcome the nation's deepening conflict over a disputed draft constitution hurriedly adopted by Islamist allies of President Mohammed Morsi, and recent decrees granting himself near-absolute powers.
"Anything other than that (dialogue) will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences; something which we won't allow," the statement said. It was read by an unnamed military official on state television.
Morsi had called for a dialogue Saturday to discuss how to resolve the disagreement as his vice president suggested that a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum could be delayed.
But the main opposition leaders declined to attend, saying talks can only take place if Morsi rescinds his decrees and cancels the referendum.
Most of the public figures at the meeting were Islamists, with the exception of liberal opposition politician Ayman Nour.
And at least three members left the talks soon after they started. Ahmed Mahran, a lawyer who was among them, said: "It was a one-way conversation," accusing presidential advisers of refusing to listen.
Egypt's once all-powerful military, which temporarily took over governing the country after the revolution that ousted autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, was largely sidelined weeks after Morsi was elected.
Weeks after he was sworn in, Morsi ordered the two top generals to retire and gave himself legislative powers that the military had assumed in the absence of a parliament, which had been dissolved by the courts.
The current crisis was sparked Nov. 22 when Morsi granted himself authority free of judicial oversight, alleging that judges loyal to the former regime were threatening the constitutional drafting process and the transition to democracy.
But the move touched off a new wave of opposition and unprecedented clashes between the president's Islamist supporters led by the Muslim Brotherhood and protesters accusing him of becoming a new strongman.
At least six civilians have been killed and several offices of the president's Muslim Brotherhood torched in the unrest. The two sides also have staged a number of sit-ins around state institutions, including the presidential palace where some of the most violent clashes occurred.
With the increasing polarization and the specter of internal fighting looming, the military began reasserting itself, with soldiers sealing off the presidential palace with tanks and barbed wire. Its warning on Saturday marked the first time the military returned to the political fray.
Failing to reach a consensus, "is in the interest of neither side. The nation as a whole will pay the price," the military said, adding it "realizes its national responsibility in protecting the nation's higher interests" and state institutions.
Images of the military's elite Republican Guards unit surrounding the area around the palace also showed one of the most high-profile troop deployment since the army handed over power to Morsi on June 30.
A sit-in by Morsi's opponents around the palace continued Saturday, with protesters setting up roadblocks with tanks behind them amid reports that the president's supporters planned rival protests. By midday Saturday, TV footage showed the military setting up a new wall of cement blocks around the palace.
The president has insisted his decrees were meant to protect the country's transition to democracy from former regime figures trying to derail it.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders, meanwhile, made their highest profile appearances since the dispute began. The group's top leader Mohammed Badie and his powerful deputy Khairat el-Shater held press conferences Saturday alleging there was a conspiracy to topple Morsi but presenting little proof.
Badie said the opposition has accused his group of violence but is instead responsible for the attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices. He also claimed that most of those killed in last week's violence at the Palace and other governorates were members of the Brotherhood.
"These are crimes, not opposition or disagreement in opinion," he said.
Meanwhile, with a dialogue largely boycotted by the main opposition players, members of a so-called Alliance of Islamists forces warned it will take all measures to protect "legitimacy" and the president, in comments signaling continued tension.
"We will not allow the revolution to be stolen again," el-Shater said. "Our main job is to support legitimacy and stop the plot to bring down the president."
Mostafa el-Naggar, a former lawmaker and protest leader during the uprising that led to Mubarak's ouster in February 2011, said the conspiracy alleged by the Brotherhood "doesn't exist." El-Naggar added that the Brotherhood and military statements suggested the crisis was far from over.
"The military is saying it is still here and will interfere when necessary. This is believed to be when there is widespread infighting," he said.
Meanwhile, he said Morsi and his group are threatening to widen the conflict by portraying the opposition as conspirators against Islam.
"As it stands, Egypt is captive to internal decisions of the Brotherhood," he said.
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USA Today, The Associated Press