CAIRO Egypt's top-ranking defense official warned Sunday that the military was "ready to intervene to stop the violence" ahead of scheduled mass protests to mark the first anniversary this week of Mohammed Morsi's inauguration as Egypt's first democratically elected president.
Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi's comments were the most forceful to date by a senior official of Egypt's military in response to months of unrest, and seemed to threaten a military coup if protests lead to bloodshed or, as el-Sissi described it, "uncontrollable conflict." El-Sissi gave Morsi and his opponents a week to reconcile.
"There is a state of division in the society, and the continuation of it is a danger to the Egyptian state," said el-Sissi, who also is the supreme commander of the armed forces and was appointed to his position by Morsi last August. The military has a "patriotic and moral responsibility" to defend Egyptians from violence, he said.
El-Sissi issued his comments in simple Egyptian dialect instead of classic, formal Arabic, language that all Egyptians could understand. He sought to appear unbiased and retain the military's place as the national voice of the people, but suggested the onus was on Morsi to repair the political divisions.
Morsi met with el-Sissi afterward. In a written statement, Morsi's office said the president and defense chief discussed the "domestic scene and the government's efforts to maintain the security of the nation and the safety of its citizens."
Many Egyptians have been in a state of near-panic for the past several days over what will happen during and after the protests leading up to Saturday's anniversary.
Some are calling for Morsi to step down, complaining that he has presided over an unprecedented economic decline, as well as political and social turmoil. But the disorganized and fractured opposition has offered no alternative to Morsi and the protests it has scheduled for Thursday and Saturday carry no clear agenda, other than change.
During the past two weeks, Morsi has pushed to shore up support by offering billions of dollars in government spending to the restive Sinai and pay raises for government workers.
In what appeared to be an appeal to Islamist militants, he named as governor of the Luxor governate, which is heavily dependent on tourism, a member of the organization that was suspected of orchestrating the 1997 attacks on tourists that killed 57.
Countering Morsi's critics, thousands of Morsi's backers demonstrated last week. Speakers told the supporters it was their duty as Muslims to defend the president an admonition that could also lead to violence.
On Sunday, four Shiite Muslims were killed by followers of the conservative Salafi strain of Sunni Islam for practicing their rituals in public, news accounts said. There are few Shiites in Egypt. Salifists consider them to be heretics.