Cairo: Egypt's powerful military put its foot down on Saturday in the crisis dividing the nation by demanding that the Islamist-led government and political foes start dialogue -- and warning it would not permit events to take a ‘disastrous’ turn.
"The path of dialogue is the best and only way to reach agreement and achieve the interests of the nation and its citizens," said a statement from the armed forces -- the first since street protests against President Mohamed Morsi erupted more than two weeks ago.
"The opposite of that will take us into a dark tunnel with disastrous results -- and that is something we will not allow."
The stark ultimatum underlined the gravity of the crisis pitting Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers against the largely secular opposition alarmed at the president's expanded powers and efforts to push through a new constitution.
Nightly protests degenerated into clashes this week between Morsi supporters and opponents leaving seven people dead and more than 640 injured.
That prompted the army to deploy tanks outside the presidential palace on Thursday to prevent further bloodshed.
The military underlined that it would maintain its neutral role and uphold its duty to protect state institutions, saying it "stands always with the great Egyptian people and insists on its unity"
It urged a solution based on "democratic rules."
The military's refusal to pick sides in the dispute recalled its hands-off position during the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak early last year.
The statement was issued after an ominous report in state newspaper Al-Ahram on Saturday which said Morsi's cabinet had approved giving soldiers police powers to maintain public order, but that Morsi had not yet signed it into a decree.
The president has struck a defiant public tone against the protests, defending both his decree and the referendum.
But in the past couple of days his camp has also made some conciliatory gestures to the opposition.
Morsi himself offered late on Thursday to hold talks with the opposition, but that was rebuffed the next day by the National Salvation Front coalition ranged against him.
One of the Front's leaders, Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN atomic agency chief and Nobel Peace laureate, stressed on Friday that dialogue could only happen if Morsi first postponed the referendum and repealed the decree placing his decisions beyond judicial review.
Vice President Mahmud Mekki said Morsi "could accept to delay the referendum," but only if the opposition guaranteed it would not exploit the legal breach inherent in pushing it back.
Early voting in the referendum for Egyptians abroad has already been pushed back four days to Wednesday.
Additionally, the Cairo prosecutors' office told AFP on Saturday that all 133 people arrested during Wednesday's clashes had been released.
And Mohammed Badie, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Morsi in the June presidential election, gave a news conference renewing the call for dialogue but insisting that the "legitimacy" of the president's decisions be respected.
The opposition fears Morsi's "power grab" and referendum aim to push the country towards a more Islamic state on the basis of a slender mandate he won in June, when he took over from the country's interim military rulers.
Morsi's backers in the Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, fear that the judiciary, with its many Mubarak-era appointees, is plotting to block their post-Mubarak reforms.
The African Union, of which Egypt is a member, also issued an appeal on Saturday for talks on the constitutional referendum to arrive at a consensus.