CAIRO -- Declaring that ongoing street protests could lead to the collapse of the state, Egypts top military general warned Tuesday that if opponents of President Mohammed Morsi continue to paralyze the country through demonstrations, the military might have to intervene to defend the government.
It was the first time that Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the commander of Egypts military forces and the countrys defense minister, had commented publicly on the unrest that in six days has left at least 60 dead across the country. He did not specify what might trigger wider military intervention, what that intervention might look like, or whom he blamed for the unrest.
But he defended Morsis imposition over the weekend of emergency rule in three provinces after rioting broke out over a court ruling in a controversial criminal case, and he said the armys deployment in those provinces only aims to protect the vital and strategic goals of the state.
The protests, el-Sissi said in a speech to military cadets that was distributed as a statement, jeopardized everyone.
"The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations," el-Sissi said.
El-Sissis remarks did not immediately seem to discourage expressions of dissent in the three provinces where Morsi also had ordered a 9 p.m. curfew for 30 days. In Suez, large demonstrations formed to mark the start of the curfew. In Port Said, where weekend violence claimed as many as 50 lives, residents launched fireworks in a spirited, festive form of disobedience. And a state news station showed young men in Ismailiya playing soccer in the streets Tuesday night.
In Cairo, which is not under curfew, protesters clashed with security forces, though for the first time in six days of violence no one died.
Just who could stop frustrated Egyptians from taking to the streets was unclear. The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, is splintered and has no more control over the protesters than do the police forces, whove countered rock-throwing demonstrators with tear gas and live fire.
Despite el-Sissis warning, soldiers deployed in front of government buildings Tuesday night did not use their newly acquired powers to arrest civilians as curfew breakers.
Egypt is currently facing a myriad of problems stemming largely from the persistent instability that now defines the nation, from a failing economy to political divisions. Violent protests have erupted almost daily for the past two months, starting in late November when Morsi exempted his decisions from court review and culminating in this past weekends violence, triggered when a Port Said court sentenced 21 soccer fans to death for their role in a Feb. 1 stampede at a soccer game that left 74 dead.
The military, while credited with toppling deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak two years ago, has shown itself unwilling to pressure Morsi during the last two months. El-Sissi told the cadets that the military is a non-political institution dedicated to protecting the state.
The army is for all Egyptians of all sects and affiliations, el-Sissi said.
National Salvation Front spokesman Hussein Abdel Ghany said the group is urging protesters to voice their objections to the Morsi government peacefully. And he said the group hoped the military would maintain a neutral position on the conflict.