Egyptian army postpones unity talks
Efforts to resolve Egypt's rapidly worsening political crisis suffered a blow today when the army abruptly postponed "unity" talks that the opposition had minutes earlier said they would attend.
Confirmation that the secular, liberal opposition coalition would join the meeting after boycotting reconciliation talks hosted last week by Islamist president Mohamed Morsi had raised hopes of an end to street protests and deadly violence.
The latest convulsion in Egypt's transition to democracy was brought on by a decree last month from Mr Morsi in which he awarded himself sweeping powers to ram through a new constitution. The constitution, to be voted on in a national referendum, is a necessary prelude to parliamentary elections due early next year.
Mr Morsi's move caused huge controversy, dividing the Arab world's most populous state and bringing thousands of pro- and anti-government protesters onto the streets in the worst upheaval since the fall of Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.
The unrest has so far claimed seven lives in clashes between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition. But the army has yet to use force to keep protesters away from the presidential palace, now ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete barricades.
The postponement of the talks came as Egyptians abroad began voting at embassies in the referendum on the new constitution that Morsi fast-tracked through an Islamist-dominated drafting assembly.
The start of the voting process was a setback for the opposition, which had hoped to delay the plebiscite.
The main opposition coalition will push for a "no" vote in the referendum rather than boycotting it. "We will vote No," opposition politician and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa said. Another senior opposition figure also announced that the group would push for a No vote.
Mr Moussa also said he would attend the army's unity talks, along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, leftist Hamdeen Sabahy and the liberal Wafd party leader Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour Moussa, contacted after the army announcement of a delay, said he was not aware of the change of plans.
The army said the delay was due to a low level of acceptances from those invited. It did not immediately say when the talks might be reconvened.
Defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also head of the armed forces, said yesterday that the talks would not be political in character. "We will sit together as Egyptians," he said.
The army dominated Egypt throughout the post-colonial era, providing every president from its ranks until Mr Mubarak was overthrown last year, and oppressing the Muslim Brotherhood.
After his election in June backed by the Brotherhood, Mr Morsi shunted aside generals who had held interim power after Mubarak and appointed a new high command. The army nonetheless portrays itself as a guarantor of national security.
The government said voting on the referendum at home would be spread over two days, December 15th and December 22nd, while the opposition said it wanted the vote to be held on one day only.