Cairo - Egypt's army-backed rulers and allies of its deposed Islamist president gave the first signs of a readiness to compromise on Saturday, pressed by Western envoys trying to head off more bloodshed.
Faced with the threat of a crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, diplomacy appeared to pick up pace, a month to the day since Egypt's army deposed President Mohammed Morsi and plunged the country into turmoil.
Recognising for the first time the strength of popular protest against his one-year rule, Morsi's allies said on Saturday they respected the demands of millions who took to the streets before his overthrow.
A spokesperson said the Morsi camp, which has refused to abandon weeks of sit-in protests until he is reinstated, wanted a solution that would "respect all popular desires".
They told envoys from the United States and the European Union that they reject any role in a political settlement for army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led Morsi's ouster, and want the constitution he suspended to be restored.
"I respect and hold in regard the demands of the masses that went out on 30 June, but I will not build on the military coup," spokesperson Tarek El-Malt told Reuters, relaying what the pro-Morsi delegation had told the envoys.
Asked whether the delegation had insisted on Morsi's reinstatement as part of any political deal, Malt, a member of the Brotherhood-affiliated Wasat party, said it was a detail for future discussion.
But given that Morsi's opponents insist he should not be part of the political solution, Malt said, then "Sisi must also not be in the political equation".
In an interview with the Washington Post, Sisi appeared to rule out running for president himself, despite his growing popularity among some of the 84 million-strong population.
"You just can't believe that there are people who don't aspire for authority," Sisi told the interviewer when asked if he would stand for president. Asked "Is that you?", he replied: "Yes." The Post said the interview was conducted on Thursday.
The Pentagon said Sisi had assured US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a telephone call, that the Egyptian authorities "were working towards a process of political reconciliation".
Egypt's military has installed a transitional government and laid out a "road map" to elections in about six months. It promises a return to civilian rule, having brought down the first freely elected president after 60 years of rule by military men.
The Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that spent decades in the shadows before winning power in elections after the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, had spurned the road map.
But its supporters, camped out at two sites in Cairo, face the threat of being violently dispersed by security forces who shot dead 80 of them a week ago. Almost 300 people have been killed in political violence since Morsi's overthrow, and much of the movement's leadership is in custody.
The deposed president is being held in a secret location, under investigation on a raft of charges including murder.
Diplomats say the West is pressing the Brotherhood to give up on Morsi's return, and for the military to pull back from a bid to drive the Islamists back underground.
Stepping back from an imminent threat to disperse the protesters, the Interior Ministry promised them "safe exit" and urged them to rejoin the political process. The government said on Friday it would blockade the camps, but not storm them.
"Your continued sit-ins have no legal or political use," Interior Ministry spokesman General Hany Abdel Latif said on Egyptian television. "You have a safe exit, you will be politically integrated," he said, wearing a white dress uniform.
"If you think you're upholding the Muslim Brotherhood, your safe exit from the squares will allow the group to return to its role within the democratic political process," Latif said, addressing Morsi's supporters.
"You are brainwashed, subject to psychological manipulation. You are being used as a political bargaining chip."
"Contacts" with Brotherhood
US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and European Union envoy Bernadino Leon were leading the diplomatic push, meeting Morsi's allies and Egypt's interim foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy.
A Foreign Ministry statement said the government was committed to national reconciliation, including all political forces "as long as they refrain from all forms of violence and incitement to it".
Fahmy told reporters after the meeting that there had been some contact with the Brotherhood.
"I wouldn't use the word negotiation. There have been contacts between different figures. There is no desire to use force if there is any other avenue that has any potential for success," he said.
Those avenues had not yet been exhausted, he said, "but I have not seen any real return or any concrete progress, frankly".
The crisis in the Arab world's most populous country has posed a dilemma for the United States and other Western governments, which had advocated democracy following the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011 but grew increasingly uncomfortable with Morsi's Islamist leanings.
Many Egyptians shared that concern and frustration grew over Morsi's failure to solve social and economic problems.
The new interim government gained the United States' approval on Thursday when Secretary of State John Kerry said the army had been "restoring democracy" when it toppled Morsi.
Under Mubarak, Egypt was a bulwark of US policy in the Middle East, not least because of its peace agreement with Israel. Morsi's overthrow had jeopardised the $1.3bn annual military aid Egypt receives from Washington.
Analysts say civilians in the new government are trying to promote a political solution despite resistance from security services that want to crack down on the Brotherhood.