Egypt Army Calls for Morsi, Opposition to Solve Crisis

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Egypt's powerful army called for President Mohamed Morsi and the secular opposition to meet to resolve a deepening crisis over a constitutional referendum as the rival camps organized mass protests Tuesday.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the country's armed forces chief and defense minister, made the appeal "for the sake of Egypt" to all political groups and movements to meet on Wednesday at a Cairo military sports complex, according to a statement posted on the military's official Facebook page.

It came as tens of thousands of protesters filled Cairo streets to demonstrate for and against the referendum called for Saturday on a draft constitution backed by Morsi and his Islamist allies.

Despite fears the rival rallies could mix, sparking clashes like those seen outside the presidential palace last week when seven people were killed, there were no immediate reports of any violence at Tuesday's demonstrations.

Troops nevertheless had orders from the president to use police powers to protect "vital state institutions" if needed.

Outside the palace, thousands of opposition protesters tore down a metal and concrete barricade to denounce the Saturday referendum, forcing hundreds of soldiers back.

But they made no move to storm the palace itself, and stood around in festive spirits chanting anti-Morsi slogans.

"We are here to say: 'Down with the illegitimate constitution'... If the referendum happens we will have to vote. But hopefully it won't," said one protester, Ahmed Badawy, 29.

At a much bigger Islamist counter-demonstration a few kilometers (miles) away gathering tens of thousands of referendum supporters, the mood was equally calm but determined.

"It's the last battle for Islam against the secularists who want to ruin Egypt," said Ahmed Alaa, who was bussed in from the north of the country.

Around him the crowd held up banners saying "Yes to the constitution," and waved Saudi and black Islamist flags as well as the Egyptian one.

However a key group of judges said on Tuesday that they would refuse to oversee the plebiscite. It was not known whether other judges would follow their lead.

The main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, is weighing the army plea for a meeting. It has previously said that it would not consider talks unless the referendum is called off.

Political analyst Emad Gad said that if no solution was found, there was a chance the crisis might prompt the army to step in and maybe even seize back the political control they gave up on Morsi's June election.

"In the event there are violent clashes or especially if blood is spilled in the street, the army will certainly intervene," he said.

On the weekend, the army said dialogue must take place otherwise the crisis could become disastrous. It warned it "will not allow" that to happen.

Washington said there were "real and legitimate questions" about the referendum process.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there were fears for "public order surrounding the polling," but she also warned the powerful military to tread carefully.

She urged the security forces "in implementing and supporting public order, to exercise restraint, to respect the right of peaceful protest."

The opposition, made up of secular, left-wing and liberal groups, sees the draft constitution rushed through by an Islamist-dominated panel last month as weakening human rights, the rights of women and religious minorities.

Morsi's supporters argue that it is up to Egypt's voters to decide.

Michael Wahid Hanna, a political analyst at US. think-tank The Century Foundation told AFP that, as things stood, there was a good chance of the referendum passing.

If that happened, Hanna warned, "I fear they are going to have an institutionalized crisis" that would polarize Egypt in the long term.

The prolonged crisis, the worst since a popular uprising overthrew autocratic president Hosni Mubarak early last year, is intensifying uncertainty over Egypt's economy.

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. It had been expected to review the loan this month for final approval.

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said: "We have officially requested the delay of a month in the negotiations with the IMF because of the political situation in the country."

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