Middle East

Egypt: Army warns it will not allow 'dark tunnel'

The army in Egypt has called for dialogue to resolve a crisis over President Mohammed Morsi's new powers, warning it will intervene to stop Egypt going into "a dark tunnel".

In its first statement since protests erupted, it vowed to protect public institutions and innocent people.

It came as protests continued outside the presidential palace in Cairo.

The opposition has rejected his call for talks, unless he gives up powers and halts a constitutional referendum.

Critics say the draft was rushed through the constituent assembly - a body dominated by Islamists who support Mr Morsi - without proper consultation and does not do enough to protect political and religious freedoms and the rights of women.

Under Egyptian law, referendums must be held two weeks after being formally presented to the president.

On Saturday, a presidential source told the BBC that President Morsi had agreed to amend the decree on his powers and had set up a legal team to finalise it.

His prime minister told al-Mehwar television the new decree could be ready "late on Saturday or on Sunday morning".

There has been no formal announcement by the president.

Sensitive position

The army statement was read on Egyptian TV by a spokesman.

"The armed forces... realise their responsibility to preserve the higher interests of the country and to secure and protect vital targets, public institutions and the interests of innocent citizens," it said.

"The armed forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus," it added.

"The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe and that is something we will not allow."

The military, which ruled Egypt for more than a year after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, has maintained a low profile in the current stand-off, says the BBC's Shaimaa Khalil in Cairo.

But the state-run Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, is reporting that the military is going to be given powers of policing by the government.

It says the measure was approved by the cabinet, but has yet to be signed by Mr Morsi. The decree would last until the adoption of a new constitution.

Similar powers were granted in June by the transitional military authorities and were roundly condemned by human rights activist and the Egyptian administrative court, which ordered its suspension.

Observers say that, with Egypt so polarised, it cannot be seen to be taking sides.

Abdel Khaleq al-Sherif, a senior official from the Muslim Brotherhood that backs President Morsi, said the army statement was "balanced".

The statement "announces that the army's loyalty is to the people and this is good", he told Reuters news agency.

Talks boycott

The main opposition movement, the National Salvation Front, says it will not take part in talks Mr Morsi had offered to hold on Saturday, in an effort to resolve the spiralling crisis.

Nobel prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, the movement's chief co-ordinator, urged other political groups to shun all dialogue with Mr Morsi.

"We [want] a dialogue not based on an arm-twisting policy and imposing fait accompli," his Twitter message read.

Two other opposition groups, the liberal Wafd party and the National Association for Change, said they were also boycotting the talks.

Mr Morsi has said that if the constitution were voted down, another constituent assembly would be formed to write a new draft.

Earlier this week the presidential palace was the scene of bloody clashes, in which five people died and hundreds were injured. The security cordon around the palace was breached on Saturday.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Cairo headquarters have also been set on fire. Rival protests between supporters and opponents of the president were held in a number of Egyptian cities on Friday, including Alexandria in the north and Asyut in the south.

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