CAIRO (AP) — Authorities offered "safe passage and protection" Thursday for thousands of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi if they end their two large sit-ins in Cairo.
The Interior Ministry's offer appears to be the first step by Egypt's new leadership to clear away the Morsi supporters from where they have been camped since shortly before he was toppled by the army July 3.
The move came as an influential ultraconservative cleric warned that any violence to break up the protests will lead to more bloodshed.
The organizers of the sit-ins outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque in eastern Cairo and a smaller one across the city near Cairo University's main campus in Giza point to the protests as evidence of the enduring support for Morsi's once-dominant Muslim Brotherhood. But mass rallies called out July 26 by the military leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, showed that a large segment of the Egyptian population backs the armed forces' actions against the ousted president.
On Wednesday, Egypt's military-backed Cabinet ordered the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, to disperse the sit-ins, arguing that they posed a threat to national security and terrorized citizens.
"The Interior Ministry ... calls on those in the squares of Rabaah al-Adawiya and Nahda to listen to the sound of reason, side with the national interest and quickly leave," Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel-Latif said in a televised address.
"Whoever responds to this call will have a safe passage and protection," he added.
The offer raised the possibility of another round of violence if security forces move on the Morsi supporters.
By Thursday afternoon, there were no significant actions against the protesters in either camp. An army helicopter flew low over the eastern Cairo sit-in, where protesters — many wearing helmets and carrying sticks — spoke of being ready for martyrdom. At one end of the camp, sandbags and bricks were erected against a possible attack.
Shortly before sunset, the demonstrators chanted "Execute el-Sissi!" and loudspeakers blared songs supporting Morsi.
"A revolution until victory — Morsi is back to the palace," one song went as men danced to the music.
Egyptian police have a track record of deadly crackdowns on street protests, and Wednesday's Cabinet move effectively gave security forces the mandate to act as they see fit. At least 130 Morsi supporters have died in such clashes since his ouster.
Al-Jazeera broadcast an emotional appeal by influential cleric Mohammed Hasaan, who warned the military that a bloody confrontation would plunge it into conflict with Egypt's Islamists.
"The right of life is great, and no one has the right to take it away, except God," Hasaan said in a 17-minute address. "Don't let your brothers be slaughtered because they differ with you politically or because they went out to defend what they think is right."
The military overthrew Morsi in a coup following protests by millions of people demanding that he step down after a year in office as Egypt's first democratically elected president.
He has been in detention since, along with several leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi's Islamist supporters demand that he be reinstated and refuse to join the military-sponsored political process.
Senior Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian was defiant in the face of the growing pressure, saying on his official Facebook page that "the people will be victorious."
At the Giza sit-in, Brotherhood protester Saad Mohammed sounded another defiant note, claiming that the number of protesters there grew after the government's warning.
"We are not afraid," he said.
Earlier, the Interior Ministry had said it would not clamp down on the protesters but will take gradual measures including warnings, water cannons and tear gas to minimize casualties.
Privately, the Rabaah protesters acknowledge that their sit-in is their last bargaining chip against the military and loyal media that label the encampment as a launching pad for terrorists. Islamic militants also have been stepping up attacks against security forces in lawless areas in the Sinai Peninsula, raising fears that extremists could exploit the anger over Morsi's removal to spread insurgency.
The Brotherhood has long been one of the most powerful political forces in Egypt, even during its decades in the opposition to autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, himself ousted in a popular uprising in 2011.
But after a series of election wins, including Morsi's narrow victory last year, the group has fallen from popular favor.
Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei sought to end the debate whether Morsi was ousted by a coup or a popular uprising.
After talks with Germany's foreign minister, ElBaradei said Morsi was forced from office because millions demanded it.
"We have moved beyond discussing this issue," said the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.