Egypt's army has called for President Mohammed Morsi and the secular opposition to meet on Wednesday to stop a crisis over an imminent constitutional referendum from tearing the country apart, AFP reports.
The televised appeal by General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the country's armed forces chief and defense minister, came late Tuesday, as rival camps of Morsi supporters and opponents brought tens of thousands of people out for separate mass rallies in Cairo.
The military has said it fears the Arab world's most populous country is headed for a disastrous "dark tunnel" unless the two sides talk, reported AFP. It has warned it will not allow the situation to worsen.
Troops have orders to use police powers to protect state institutions until results are announced from the referendum, which is scheduled for Saturday.
The United States has urged Egypt's military, which it provides with billions of dollars each year, "to exercise restraint, to respect the right of peaceful protest."
Egypt's main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, has so far rejected talks with Morsi and his Islamist camp unless the referendum is scrapped. But it said it was weighing the army's appeal.
Morsi has previously declared himself ready to start dialogue with the Front but has said postponing the referendum is impossible.
Overnight, Islamists and the opposition brought out huge crowds for and against the plebiscite, AFP reported. There was no immediate sign of any violence like that of last week, when clashes killed seven people and hurt hundreds outside Morsi's presidential palace.
This time, thousands of anti-Morsi protesters tore down parts of a concrete and metal barricade that had been set up by soldiers near the palace.
A much bigger Islamist counter-demonstration a few miles away gathered tens of thousands of referendum supporters whose mood was equally determined.
In his speech on state television, Sissi said the proposed meeting for Wednesday, in a military sports complex in northeast Cairo, aimed to bring all political actors, including Morsi and the opposition, together along with youth movements, judges and journalists.
It would not, he said, be a forum for structured political negotiations but rather an attempt to come up with some sort of entente "for the sake of Egypt".
"We will not talk politics or the referendum. We will just sit together so that every Egyptian who is worried in their home is reassured," the armed forces chief said. "You can have differences, but not quarrel."
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. The IMF had been expected to review the loan, which would have come with budget-cutting requirements attached, 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."