Egyptian army to host unity talks as crisis deepens

Egypt's army chief will host national unity talks on Wednesday

Demonstrators dodge tear gas during clashes in a Cairo street on November 22, 2011. Picture: AFP

CAIRO - Egypt's army chief will host national unity talks on Wednesday, seeking to end a growing political and economic crisis in the Arab world's most populous nation.

The meeting scheduled for 2:30 p.m. British time was called in response to a wave of protests since President Mohamed Morsi awarded himself sweeping powers on November 22 to push through a new constitution shaped by his Islamist allies.

The new constitution is due to go to a referendum on Saturday.

"We will not speak about politics nor about the referendum.

"Tomorrow we will sit together as Egyptians," armed forces chief and Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said at a gathering of army and police officials on Tuesday.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were expected to attend, while the main opposition coalition said it would decide on Wednesday morning whether to participate.

The opposition stayed away from an earlier reconciliation meeting called by Morsi last weekend.

The judiciary committee overseeing the vote decided late on Tuesday that the referendum would be conducted on two days instead of one, as previously planned.

"The committee had officially asked the President to issue a law approving that the referendum takes place on two stages on Saturday December 15 and Saturday December 22," Judge Mahmoud Abu Shousha, a member of the referendum judiciary committee, said.

Voting for Egyptians living abroad starts on Wednesday.

"The reason for the splitting of the vote into two stages is due to a shortage of judges needed to supervise the ballot stations," another member of the committee, who asked not to be named, said.

Many judges had decided in a joint meeting on Tuesday to not supervise the vote on a constitution they say had divided the country into two groups.

Earlier, Finance Minister Mumtaz al-Said disclosed that a $4.8 billion (3 billion pounds) International Monetary Fund loan, a cornerstone of Egypt's economic recovery hopes, would be delayed until next month because of the crisis.

The delay was intended to allow time to explain a widely criticised package of economic austerity measures to the Egyptian people, Said told Reuters.