CAIRO — Wading into an increasingly volatile fray, Egypt's military on Sunday gave the nation's Islamist rulers and their opponents a week to reach an understanding before planned June 30 opposition protests aimed at forcing out the president, in a toughly worded warning that it will intervene to stop the nation from entering a "dark tunnel."
The powerful military also gave a thinly veiled warning to President Mohammed Morsi's hard-line backers that it will step in if the mostly secular and liberal protesters, who have vowed to be peaceful, are attacked during the planned demonstrations.
In a bid to project a business-as-usual image, Morsi's office said in a statement late Sunday that the president met with the army's chief, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to discuss the "domestic scene and the government's efforts to maintain the security of the nation and the safety of its citizens." There was no mention of el-Sissi's warning.
Seeking to assert Morsi's seniority over el-Sissi — the president is the supreme commander of the armed forces — the brief statement, alluding to June 30, said he ordered the quick completion of plans to protect the state's strategic and vital installations.
The opposition argues that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, despite having won a series of elections since the 2011 revolution that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, have squandered their legitimacy with heavy handed misrule. It contends that the Islamists have encroached on the independence of the judiciary, sought to monopolize power, and pushed through an Islamist-backed constitution, breaking promises to seek consensus.
Morsi's supporters say the opposition has shunned his offers of dialogue and now are turning to force to remove him because they have been unable to compete at the ballot box.
On Sunday, a court compounded Morsi's troubles by saying members of his Muslim Brotherhood conspired with Hamas, Hezbollah and local militants to storm a prison in 2011 and free 34 Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi. Also, the most iconic youth figure of the 2011 revolution, Wael Ghonim, called on Morsi to step down before June 30 to prevent bloodshed.
Both sides say they intend to be peaceful on June 30, but many fear the day could descend into violence. There are worries young protesters could attack offices of the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice party. Some of Morsi's hard-line supporters have vowed to "smash" the protests or have declared protesters infidels who deserve to be killed.
"Those who will spray Morsi with water will be sprayed with blood," warned one cleric.
El-Sissi, weighed in with his first public comments on the planned protests while addressing officers at a seminar Sunday.
It was his most direct warning yet that the military — which ruled Egypt directly after Mubarak's fall until Morsi's June 30, 2012 inauguration — could step in.
He said the country's divisions had reached a point that they were a danger to the state itself.
"Those who think that we (the military) are oblivious to the dangers that threaten the Egyptian state are mistaken. We will not remain silent while the country slips into a conflict that will be hard to control," he said in his comments, made public on the military's Facebook page.
Ostensibly, el-Sissi addressed both sides. But his demand for "genuine reconciliation" seemed to be a nod toward the opposition's stance that Morsi's past gestures of "dialogue" have been empty and a signal to him that he must make compromises.
"It is the most powerful public and direct message from the military to the president," said analyst Abdullah el-Sinnawi, thought to be close to the military. "I see this as a warning of a coup if Morsi does not find a solution."
Another analyst, Gamal Abdel-Gawad of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies, said the comments signaled a change in the military's position.
"We are in a different phase now. He (el-Sissi) is giving a deadline for a solution to the president to do what he can do or else they will be forced to intervene," he said.
El-Sissi appeared to lower the threshold for what warrants intervention by the military. In earlier pronouncements, he cited the collapse or near collapse of the state.