Egypt's powerful military thrust itself into the political crisis dividing the nation yesterday, demanding 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 Mohammed Mursi 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 seriousness of the crisis pitting Mursi and his Islamist backers against the largely secular opposition alarmed at his expanded powers and efforts to push through a new constitution.
Nightly protests degenerated into clashes last week between Mursi 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 role safeguarding the nation's security, pointedly not taking sides.
"The military establishment stands always with the great Egyptian people and insists on its unity," it said.
"We confirm that we support national dialogue and the path of democracy ... to bring together all factions in the country."
The military's refusal to become embroiled in political disputes recalled its hands-off position during the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak early last year.
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 Islamist-led camp has also made some conciliatory gestures to the mainly secular opposition.
Mursi offered late Thursday to hold talks with the opposition, but was rebuffed the next day by the National Salvation Front coalition ranged against him.