CAIRO, Dec 12, 2012 (AFP)
CAIRO, Dec 12, 2012 (AFP)
Egypt’s army has invited President Mohamed Morsi and his opposition to a national unity meeting on Wednesday in a bid to resolve a deep crisis over an imminent referendum that officials said would now be split over a week.
The appeal followed mass overnight demonstrations in Cairo by the rival camps that highlighted the divisions in Egypt over the referendum on a new constitution drafted largely by Morsi’s Islamist allies.
Those protests passed off peacefully, but fears subsisted that the struggle could descend again into the violence seen on the capital’s streets last week, when clashes between rival protesters left seven dead and hundreds injured.
Morsi has rejected opposition demands that the referendum be postponed.
On Wednesday, the country’s electoral commission said the plebiscite would go ahead as planned on Saturday, 15 December, but that a second regional round of voting would take place a week later, on 22 December.
The decision to split the referendum followed an announcement by a key group of judges who said they would not oversee the vote. Pro-Morsi judges would be stretched thin monitoring the referendum.
Some of the estimated 500 000 Egyptian voters living abroad have begun voting in the referendum in embassies and consulates in 150 countries, the official MENA news agency reported. The overseas voting had been delayed for four days.
US-based group Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, called for an investigation into the alleged “detention and abuse” of several dozen anti-Morsi protesters by Islamists during the bloody clashes that erupted on 5 December.
Faced with a situation that could spiral out of hand, Egypt’s army is trying to bring both sides together to begin talks.
To prevent further bloodshed in front of the presidential palace, the army has deployed troops and tanks there.
Anti-Morsi protesters overnight dismantled metal and concrete barriers a short distance away from the palace and poured through to protest peacefully against the referendum and against the Muslim Brotherhood from which Morsi hails.
A bigger Islamist counter-demonstration a few kilometres (miles) away gathered tens of thousands of referendum supporters whose mood was equally determined.
“It’s the last battle for Islam against the secularists who want to ruin Egypt,” said Ahmed Alaa, who was bused in from the north of the country.
Armed forces chief and defence minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi late Tuesday called for Morsi, the opposition, and other political figures, judges and journalists to gather in a military sporting complex in Cairo late Wednesday to show dialogue was possible.
“We will not talk politics or the referendum. We will just sit together so that every Egyptian who is worried in their home is reassured,” Sissi said. “You can have differences, but not quarrel.”
The military has said it fears the Arab world’s most populous country is headed for a disastrous “dark tunnel” unless the two sides talk. It has warned it will not allow the situation to worsen.
There was no immediate confirmation from Morsi or the opposition that they would attend. The president has previously said he is ready for dialogue but that meeting the opposition’s pre-condition for delaying the referendum was impossible.
The National Salvation Front said it was weighing the invitation to meet and would give its decision on Wednesday.
The United States said there were “real and legitimate questions” about the referendum process and urged Egypt’s army, which it provides with $1.3 billion (1.0 billion euros) each year, “to exercise restraint, to respect the right of peaceful protest.”
The prolonged crisis is also intensifying economic uncertainty.
The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday put on hold a $4.8-billion loan Egypt has sought to fill budget gaps it will face in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.