Egypt's powerful military, sidelined last summer by the newly elected Islamist president, edged back Saturday into a political fray boiling over with tensions between secular forces and a government determined to pass a constitution enshrining a central role for religion.
A military statement warning of "disastrous" consequences should the standoff continue was widely interpreted as pushing President Mohammed Morsi to compromise and meet the opposition halfway over a draft constitution and the near-absolute powers he gave himself.
A direct military intervention to stave off bloodshed would likely enjoy the paradoxical and tacit support, at least initially, of some pro-democracy activists mortified by the authoritarian bent and Islamist ambitions of the freely elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.
Egypt's military, which had been the nation's de facto ruler since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup, remains the country's most powerful institution. But it has kept a low profile since Morsi ordered the retirement of its top two officers in August and canceled a constitutional declaration that gave it legislative powers when parliament's law-making chamber was dissolved by a court ruling.
The carefully worded statement appeared designed in part to show the military's growing impatience with the deepening political crisis pitting Morsi and his Islamist supporters against secular and liberal forces, including minority Christians.
It said dialogue was the "best and only" way to overcome the nation's deepening conflict. "Anything other than that (dialogue) will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences; something that we won't allow," it warned. "Failing to reach a consensus," is in the interest of neither side, it added. "The nation as a whole will pay the price."
Following its return to the barracks in June after a 16-month stint leading the country after Hosni Mubarak's ouster, the military has been busy cleaning up its image and focusing on its core task. Morsi, meanwhile, has since taking office five months ago been going out of his way to assure the generals that he has no intention of meddling in their affairs. The draft constitution hurriedly adopted by Morsi's Islamist backers also leaves the armed forces as an entity above oversight.
Whether the military wants to return to the messy business of running a nation torn by divisions and beset by political turmoil and chronic economic woes may be doubtful. However, many, in view of Saturday's statement, see the possibility of a limited and temporary intervention to save the country from civil strife if the need arises.
A Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, said he saw the statement as an expression of support for Morsi, but lamented the military's return to the political fray. "We don't accept the interference of the military," he said.
Mohammed Waked, a prominent activist of the National Front for Justice and Democracy and a veteran of last year's uprising against Mubarak's rule, said any attempt by the military to return to power would initially be successful given heightened fear of violence.
"We will oppose it ... but there is a larger segment in society now that is willing to accept it more than before," he added. "It is in Morsi's hands."
The military's role in the ongoing crisis began Thursday with troops sealing off the area around Morsi's Cairo palace — scene of mass opposition rallies and deadly clashes — with tanks, armored vehicles and barbed wire. Images of elite Republican Guards' troops surrounding the palace area were the most high-profile troop deployment since the army handed power to Morsi in June.
The troops, however, have been anything but hostile to the opposition protesters in the area, allowing them on Friday to bypass their lines and surge ahead all the way to the walls of the palace, which they covered with anti-Morsi graffiti and banners denouncing the Brotherhood. Protesters also have painted anti-Morsi graffiti on the tanks.
The deployment, however, was received with mixed feelings— underlining the tenuous relations between the two sides and the lingering fear of a return to military rule. Some in the crowd posed with army officers for pictures, as soldiers assured them they won't let anyone harm them. But others rejected the military's reassurances, and one female protester shouted to the officers that their tanks had protesters' blood on them, a reference to a violent crackdown by the military on a protest last year.
Many protesters also heckled a small crowd that chanted "the military and the people are one hand" — a slogan first used by protesters when army troops replaced the hated police on the streets during the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising.
Abdullah el-Sinawi, a prominent commentator close to the military, said Saturday's statement was a warning to Morsi and his Islamist backers to reach an agreement with their opponents to prevent the country's security from unraveling.
"We don't want a coup, and the military itself doesn't want to return to politics. But if it is forced to interfere to restore security, it will," el-Sinawi said. "The onus is on Morsi."
Mostafa el-Naggar, a former lawmaker and protest leader during last year's anti-Mubarak uprising, speculated that it could not have been easy for the military to issue the statement after the scathing criticism it endured for its running of the country starting from Mubarak's ouster in February, 2011 and June this year when it handed power to Morsi, the country's first civilian and freely elected president.
"It means a return to political life," el-Naggar said of the statement. "The military is saying it is still here and will interfere when necessary."
Egypt's military long enjoyed an aura of invincibility. All four presidents before Morsi hailed from the army, which considers itself the ultimate guarantor of the nation's sovereignty and safety.
Army generals taking powerful jobs on retirement in the state-owned public sector and as provincial governors ensured that the military's influence extended beyond the armed forces, which have over the years built an economic empire above oversight of any kind. But its reputation was shattered in the aftermath of Mubarak's ouster.
Until Morsi came to power in June as the nation's first freely elected president, Egypt's military had been struggling with protesters accusing it of trying to stall the transition to democracy after Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in February 2011.
It faced allegations of human rights violations, including torturing detainees, and scenes of elite troops beating up peaceful protesters, including women, on the streets hurt its standing as the defender of the nation.
This week's scenes of Brotherhood supporters armed with sticks carrying out military-type drills on streets close to Morsi's palace in the upscale Heliopolis district have revived suspicions that the fundamentalist group is running militias and made the prospect of an army intervention more palatable.
"The escalation of the conflict into civil strife becomes a risk to the military's interests and the country as a whole," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert from the New York-based Century Foundation. "So, the statement is a reminder of the potential role of the military and a signal for civilians to manage the political process."
Egypt's ongoing crisis is the worst since Mubarak's ouster, with the two sides repeatedly bringing out tens of thousands of supporters on the streets and the two sides at times fighting each other with firebombs, sticks and rocks. Offices of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood have been attacked, sometimes torched, by his opponents. With neither side willing to compromise and a flurry of threats of violence by radical Islamists, the specter of more and widespread violence is real.
Omar Abdel-Halim, a 28-year-old veteran of the 2011 uprising, says he and his comrades will reserve judgment on a possible intervention by the military to end the violence.
If there is large scale bloodshed between the revolutionaries and the Islamists, he added, the army may not even be able to end it. "I think troops will just deploy to protect state institutions. They are not equipped to go after combatants on side streets and in alleys."