Egypt's military-backed interim leadership proclaimed Wednesday that a crackdown against two protest sites is inevitable, saying that nearly two weeks of foreign diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve its standoff with the Muslim Brotherhood have failed.
The government's statements strongly suggested that Egypt's sharp polarization may spiral into even more bloodshed as thousands of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood figure, camp out at two main Cairo intersections and hold daily protests outside security buildings.
At stake is stability in the Arab world's most populous country. Already more than 250 people have been killed in violence since the military ousted Morsi last month, including at least 130 Brotherhood supporters in two major clashes between security forces and backers of the deposed president.
"The decision agreed on by all to clear the sit-ins is final and irreversible," Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said on state television, reading a statement issued by the Egyptian Cabinet.
In response, top Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohammed el-Beltagy said the protesters are determined to keep up the sit-ins.
"What we care about is for there to be clear talks about our position against the military coup and the importance of returning legitimacy," el-Beltagy told The Associated Press at the main protest site in the capital's Nasr City neighborhood. He said the Cabinet's statement makes "clear that they lack vision with regard to the political scene."
A joint statement released late Wednesday by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
"We remain concerned and troubled that government and opposition leaders have not yet found a way to break a dangerous stalemate and agree to implement tangible confidence building measures," the statement said.
"The Egyptian government bears a special responsibility to begin this process to ensure the safety and welfare of its citizens," it said. "Now is not the time to assess blame, but to take steps that can help initiate a dialogue and move the transition forward."
It is unclear what the government's crackdown on the sit-ins would entail or when it would begin, but it appeared unlikely to start until next week. The Cabinet statement said the government was keen not to take action during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends Wednesday to be followed by four days of Eid celebrations.
For his part, the prime minister said the government seeks stability and rule of law in the face of "hard circumstances". He said Egypt must start a new chapter, "without settling scores, without bias against any side."
A flurry of diplomatic visits by envoys from the United States, the European Union and Arab Gulf states ended in deadlock. By Wednesday, all had departed Cairo with no guarantees of compromise from the government or the Brotherhood.
Some of the visits by foreign diplomats were made at the request of those in power, such as Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, who wanted to find peaceful ways to resolve the dispute. But emotions in Egypt are high, and many have pushed for a strong hand in quashing the protests.
Widespread anger with the Brotherhood and Morsi is what sparked millions to take to the streets and demand his ouster just days before the military forced him out of power July 3. Later on, hundreds of thousands rallied to answer a call by the country's army chief to give him a mandate to stop "potential terrorism" by Morsi supporters.
The Brotherhood is demanding Morsi's reinstatement as Egypt's first freely elected president, and many of the pro-Morsi protesters say that the sit-ins are their last bargaining chip to press for the release of detained leaders and for guarantees that they will have a significant role in politics.
The prime minister said the Cabinet "had hoped to solve this crisis during this period without the intervention of security forces," but that the sit-ins have not been peaceful and that the protesters have frightened citizens, blocked roads, attacked government buildings and threatened security.
Sixteen prominent Egyptian rights groups said Wednesday in a joint statement that they strongly condemn "rhetoric employed by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies, which includes clear incitement to violence and religious hatred in order to achieve political gains." The groups, which include the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said sectarian rhetoric has been used against Christians and that police have been negligent in protecting these citizens.
"The government's patience is running out," the prime minister said. "Therefore, the Cabinet warns against breaking the limits of peace and that the use of weapons in the face of policemen or citizens will be met with utmost firmness and strength."
Still, it remained uncertain whether authorities would resort to a level of force that could leave scores more dead, including women and children, and invite world condemnation.
In the past week, authorities have outlined plans to break up the sit-ins using more restrained measures, such as putting up cordons to block people who leave from returning.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has condemned the deliberate use of children in Egypt who are "put at risk as potential witnesses to or victims of violence." The Brotherhood says it cannot control whether families choose to stay camped out.
A statement from interim President Adly Mansour's office said foreign diplomatic efforts to ease tensions did not succeed, despite the full support of the Egyptian government.
"The state of Egypt appreciates the efforts of friendly nations and understands the reasons why they did not achieve their desired objectives, and holds the Muslim Brotherhood fully responsible for the failure of these efforts."
Remarks by U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to reporters in Cairo demanding the release of top Islamist leaders appeared to inflame an already volatile situation. After meeting Egyptian officials and Brotherhood leaders on Tuesday, the two warned that Egypt would be making a "huge mistake" if it did not release what they described as "political prisoners." They also called Morsi's ouster a coup.
The McCain-Graham visit was carried out at U.S. President Barack Obama's request, but the administration has avoided calling Morsi's ouster a coup because it would trigger a suspension of an annual $1.3 billion U.S. military aid package to Egypt. The aid package has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy in the Middle East since Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel.
Mansour, a Supreme Constitutional Court judge who was installed as Egypt's interim president by the military, rejected the senators' message, calling it "unacceptable interference in internal politics."
Jen Psaki, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, distanced the administration from the two Republican senators' remarks, emphasizing that it was Deputy Secretary of State William Burns who was representing the U.S. government in Egypt.
"While we certainly welcome different points of views ... our agenda and goals were conveyed through Deputy Secretary Burns," Psaki said.
Egyptian prosecutors widened the scope of some cases against Brotherhood figures on Wednesday, announcing that former lawmaker el-Beltagy and three others will now face criminal charges for the kidnapping of a policeman by pro-Morsi protesters during a march. Police say their colleague was taken to the main sit-in in Nasr City and beaten before being released last week.
El-Beltagy is wanted by police and was already facing charges of inciting violence. The sit-ins have given him and other top wanted figures cover from authorities who are unable to reach them amid the thousands of protesters. The protest camps are guarded by men wielding sticks and rocks who check the identification cards of visitors.
Morsi has been held at secret locations since his ouster, though Egyptian authorities have allowed the EU's Ashton and a group of African statesmen to visit him. He faces accusations of conspiring with the militant Palestinian Hamas group during his escape from prison under Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The new Egyptian leadership also pushed ahead Wednesday with a roadmap for transition, outlining the parameters of the committee that would review changes to the 2012 constitution drafted by a majority Islamist panel under Morsi. The new 50-member panel includes quotas, such as three Christians, at least four people under the age of 40, two Islamist party figures, members of the arts community and union members.
The political turmoil has been exploited by militants in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, who have carried out daily attacks on the police and military, killing more than 20 security officials and 12 civilians.
On Wednesday, Egypt's military spokesman said 60 Islamic militants have been killed and 103 arrested in the peninsula as part of the army's operations there over the past month. It was not possible to independently verify the figures.
AP correspondent Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.