CAIRO // A call by Egypt's defence minister for all political parties to meet today to resolve the crisis splitting the country was thrown into doubt yesterday when the country's official news agency quoted an armed forces spokesman denying that the defense minister issued the invitation.
The brief Mena report last night did not name the military spokesman.
Earlier, the agency said General Abdel Fattah Al Sissi, who is also the country's armed forces chief, made the appeal "for the sake of Egypt" for all political groups and movements to meet today at a Cairo military sports complex, according to a statement posted on the military's official Facebook page.
Egypt's powerful military warned earlier this week of disastrous consequences if the dispute over the country's draft constitution is not resolved. The army has orders from the president, Mohammed Morsi, to use temporary police powers to protect state institutions, following clashes in the capital last week that left seven people dead and hundreds injured.
The confusion over the statement arose yesterday as crowds packed Cairo's Tahrir Square and gathered in the streets for mass rallies for and against the constitutional referendum called by Mr Morsi for Saturday.
The draft constitution, which has sharply divided and polarised the country, was hurriedly approved by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly despite an opposition boycott.
The head of Egypt's key association of judges yesterday said 90 per cent of its members have voted not to oversee the referendum. The decision by the Judges' Club is unlikely to stop the referendum from taking place, but it casts further doubt on the legitimacy of the constitutional drafting process.
Mr Morsi's deputy has said that if there are not enough judges to oversee the referendum, the vote can be staggered over several days. A faction of judges loyal to Mr Morsi has said it would not boycott the vote.
Egypt asked for a one-month delay for a US$4.8 billion (Dh17bn) loan it had agreed with the International Monetary Fund because of the current political turmoil, the prime minister.
The IMF confirmed its reception of the request in a statement, saying it stood ready to continue supporting the country and would consult Egyptian authorities about a resumption of loan discussions.
Amid the tension, Mr Morsi decided on Monday to suspend a series of tax rises announced a day earlier on goods including alcohol, cigarettes and cooking oil. The decisions were part of a programme to reduce a huge budget deficit.
The prime minister, Hesham Kandil, said that although the belt-tightening is a must, political disagreements had made suspension of the measures necessary.
The tax rises are likely to be highly unpopular, and the opposition has used them to rally Mr Morsi's opponents.
"In a period characterised by political tension and arguments, the president was forced to suspend these (decisions) until there is a societal dialogue around them," Mr Kandil told a news conference. "In this political environment ... we asked to postpone the loan for a month."
The government views the IMF loan as crucial to revive the country's ailing economy and improve the nation's image in the minds of international donors, which could eventually help Egypt secure more loans to help its battered finances.
Mr Kandil said a dialogue with economists and interest groups would begin about the tax rises next week, but gave no date. He warned that continued political instability is further crippling Egypt's already ailing economy.
"If we continue in this political instability, we may not find ground to stand on," he said. "The economy must be kept away from the political disputes because it is a national economic reform programme that affects all citizens."
On the streets of the capital, tensions ran high after at least nine people were hurt when masked gunmen attacked protesters camping in Tahrir Square, firing birdshot and swinging knives and sticks in a predawn raid, according to witnesses and Egyptian media.
The opposition had called for a major demonstration, in hopes it will force Mr Morsi to postpone the referendum. Outside the presidential palace yesterday, dozens of protesters succeeded in pushing down two giant concrete blocks stopping access to the site.
Thousands of flag-waving Morsi supporters, who want the vote to go ahead as planned, assembled at a nearby mosque, setting the stage for further street confrontations.
In Egypt's second city of Alexandria, thousands of rival demonstrators gathered at separate venues. Mr Morsi's backers chanted: "The people want implementation of Islamic law," while his opponents shouted: "The people want to bring down the regime."
The upheaval following the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year is causing concern in the West, in particular the United States, which has given Cairo billions of dollars in military and other aid since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979.
In Cairo, police cars surrounded Tahrir Square, the first time since November 23, shortly after a decree by Mr Morsi awarding himself sweeping temporary powers.
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. It was meant to deter us and prevent us from protesting today. We will stage the biggest protest possible today," said John Gerges, a Christian Egyptian who described himself as a socialist.
* Associated Press and Agence-Presse France