CAIRO - Egypt's military warned 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.
Failing to reach a consensus, "is in the interest of neither side. The nation as a whole will pay the price," it added. The statement was read by an unnamed military official on state television.
Egypt's once all-powerful military, which temporarily took over governing the country after the revolution that ousted autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, has largely been sidelined since handing over power to Morsi weeks after his election.
But it has begun asserting itself again, with soldiers sealing off the presidential palace with tanks and barbed wire, as rival protests and street battles between Morsi's supporters and his opponents turned increasingly violent.
The statement said the military "realizes its national responsibility in protecting the nation's higher interests" and state institutions.
At least six civilians have been killed and several offices of the president's Muslim Brotherhood set on fire since the crisis began on Nov. 22. 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.
Images of the military's elite Republican Guards unit surrounding the area around the palace 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.
Tensions have escalated since Morsi issued new decrees granting himself and an Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly immunity from oversight by the judiciary. The president's allies then rushed through a constitution and he announced a Dec. 15 nationwide referendum on the charter.
Morsi has called for a national dialogue and scheduled a meeting on Saturday, but opponents say he must first cancel the referendum on the draft constitution and rescind his recent decrees.
Only veteran liberal opposition politician Ayman Nour attended the meeting with Morsi on Saturday. The other eight delegates were Islamists.
The president has insisted his decrees were meant to protect the country's transition to democracy from former regime figures trying to derail it.