In a battle with the street for control of Egypt, the ruling military council has threatened to deploy a new weapon which could further polarise the country and lead to a tougher crackdown on the protesters demanding an end to army rule.
The generals have suggested a vote.
Yet by holding out the prospect of a referendum on the army's role, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi intends not to speed his departure but to harness support for interim military rule among Egypt's anxious silent majority, those millions who are not currently protesting in Tahrir Square.
Tantawi did not say when a vote might take place or exactly what the referendum would be on. The idea was widely seen as a tactic to pressure the street activists into recognising they may be in the minority and going home. But with no sign of them giving way on Wednesday, he may be forced to follow through.
It is very serious and very dangerous, said Hassan Nafa, a political scientist at Cairo University who has been critical of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the group of generals that has ruled since Hosni Mubarak, himself a product of the military, was deposed in February after 30 years in power.
It means if you don't accept what I am proposing to you, I will go to the people and get a blank cheque for the army to continue to rule the country the way it wants, he said.
For the generals, it would be a bet on Egypt's silent majority. It is a gamble they could well win by presenting the people with the spectre of chaos were the army to step back right away, as demanded by those camped out in Tahrir Square.
Beyond the square, a sprawling downtown traffic junction by the Nile, traders hit by the latest protests expressed the kind of sentiment that could be tapped by the generals, who have promised to hand power to a civilian administration by mid-2012.
Of course I am with the idea of having a referendum because the people sitting in Tahrir don't represent all Egyptians, said Mohammed Sayyid, who works in a foreign exchange bureau.
Business is suffering from the latest turmoil. Our work here is affected of course. No tourists, no people pass by, he said. We don't know what the people in Tahrir want any more.
TANTAWI DIDN'T YET UNDERSTAND
Parts of Tantawi's speech on Tuesday appeared aimed at Egyptians like Sayyid, who yearn for normality. Tantawi highlighted the damage done to the economy through investment flight, production hold-ups and the depletion of resources.
In his nine-minute address, he also gave some ground to the reform movement, pledging the military would hand power to a civilian president before July -- six months or so sooner than promised -- and would install a new cabinet in the meantime.
But it was not enough for protesters who see the generals as an extension of Mubarak's rule. They do not trust the military council to manage the transition to democracy and want it instead to hand presidential powers to an interim civilian body.
In the square, protesters quickly dismissed the referendum idea as a way of turning Egyptians against each other.
Holding the military leadership responsible for bloodshed since Friday in which 37 people had been killed, some said Tantawi was in no position to call a referendum -- an idea that came as a surprise at the end of his speech.
The military, he said, was completely ready to hand over responsibility immediately, and to return to its original mission to protect the nation if the nation wants that, via a popular referendum, if need be.
Safwat Zayat, an analyst of military affairs and a retired Egyptian army general, said Tantawi was blurring the line between the military council and the armed forces -- an institution still widely respected among Egyptians at large: It's as if he if he is asking the people to have a referendum on the armed forces, and not the military council, he said.
The referendum idea showed Tantawi viewed the protesters as a minority. This is an implicit recognition that he does not see this second resumption of the Egyptian revolution as popular and all-encompassing, Zayat said.
Cairo University's Nafa added: The question asked in the referendum will be: 'Do you accept the army to stay or to leave.' The people will say: 'No, it should stay, certainly, because this represents the state'.
Tantawi didn't yet understand that there is no contention between the people and the army. The contention is between the people and the council. The council is acting as if it is a representative of Mubarak, not of the revolution.
He is saying if you don't leave the square I will go to the referendum and if he goes to the referendum and the people don't leave the square, what will he do?
Kill the people in Tahrir Square?
(Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)