Army calls for unity talks in Egypt
Egypt's army chief called for talks on national unity to end the country's mounting political crisis after a vital loan from the IMF was delayed and thousands of pro- and anti-government demonstrators took to the streets.
The meeting scheduled for tomorrow afternoon was called in response to an increasingly destabilising series of protests that has unfolded since President Mohamed Morsi awarded himself sweeping powers on November 22nd to push through a new constitution shaped by his Islamist allies in a referendum on Saturday.
Armed forces chief and defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a meeting of "national unity for the love of Egypt to bring together partners of the country in the presence of the president of the republic", the army spokesman said.
An aide said Mr Morsi had supported the call for talks. The Muslim Brotherhood said it would be there, while the main opposition coalition said it would decide tomorrow morning whether to attend.
Earlier, the finance minister disclosed that a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan, a cornerstone of Egypt's economic recovery hopes, would be delayed until next month.
Mumtaz al-Said said the delay was intended to allow time to explain a widely criticised package of economic austerity measures to the Egyptian people.
The announcement came after Mr Morsi yesterday backed down on planned tax rises, seen as essential for the loan to go ahead, but which the opposition had fiercely criticised.
Prime Minister Hisham Kandil said the measures would not hurt the poor. In a bid to rebuild consensus, he said there would be a public consultation about the programme next week.
In Washington, the IMF said Egypt had asked for the loan to be postponed "in light of the unfolding developments on the ground".
On the streets of the capital, tensions ran high after nine people were hurt when gunmen fired at protesters camping in Tahrir Square, according to witnesses and Egyptian media.
The opposition has called for major protests it hopes will force Mr Morsi to postpone the referendum.
Thousands gathered outside the presidential palace, whose walls are scrawled with anti-Morsi graffiti.
A bigger crowd of flag-waving Islamist Morsi backers, who want the vote to go ahead as planned on Saturday, assembled at a nearby mosque, setting the stage for further street confrontations in a crisis that has divided the nation of 83 million.
In central Cairo, police cars surrounded Tahrir Square in central Cairo, the first time they had appeared in the area since shortly after Mr Morsi awarded himself sweeping temporary powers in a move that touched off widespread protests.
The attackers, some masked, also threw petrol bombs that started a small fire, witnesses said.
"The masked men came suddenly and attacked the protesters in Tahrir. The attack was meant to deter us and prevent us from protesting today," said John Gerges, a Christian Egyptian who described himself as a socialist.
The latest bout of unrest has so far claimed seven lives in clashes between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and opponents who gathered outside Mr Morsi's presidential palace.
The Republican Guard, which protects the palace, has yet to use force to keep protesters away from the building, now ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete barricades.
The army has told all sides to resolve their differences through dialogue, saying it would not allow Egypt to enter a "dark tunnel". For the period of the referendum, the army has been granted powers by Mr Morsi allowing it to arrest civilians.
Leftists, liberals and other opposition groups say the hastily arranged constitutional referendum is polarising the country and could put it in a religious straitjacket.
Opposition leaders want the referendum to be delayed and hope they can get sufficiently large numbers of protesters on the streets to change Mr Morsi's mind.