CAIRO: Egyptians abroad began voting on Wednesday in a referendum on the new constitution that President Mohamed Mursi fast-tracked through an Islamist-dominated drafting assembly, in a setback for the opposition who had hoped to delay the process.
The official state news agency reported voting had started at Egyptian embassies abroad, the same day as the army scheduled talks between rival factions in Cairo aiming to reunite a country deeply divided by the crisis over the referendum.
Voting on the referendum at home will be spread over two days, Dec. 15 and Dec. 22.
The liberal, secular opposition had argued that the chaotic protests and counter protests which followed Mursi's assumption of sweeping new powers late last month meant the referendum should be postponed, but large opposition rallies this week did not change the Islamist president's mind on the matter.
State media said the two-day voting plan had been adopted because many of the judges needed to oversee the vote were staying away in protest at the decision to hold the referendum, so voting had to be staggered to move the judges around.
Mursi was anxious to push through the new constitution as it must be in place before national elections can be held. Those are expected early next year.
In response to the growing political crisis surrounding the referendum, Egypt's military chief will host national unity talks later on Wednesday.
Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also the head of the armed forces, said the talks would not be political in character. "We will sit together as Egyptians," he said.
Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled him to the presidency in a June election, were expected to attend, along with the main opposition coalition. The opposition stayed away from an earlier reconciliation meeting called by Mursi last weekend.
Outside the presidential palace - where anti-Mursi protesters have been demanding the Islamist postpone the vote on a constitution they say does not represent all Egyptians - there was scepticism about the latest round of talks.
The army dominated Egypt throughout the post-colonial era, providing every president until Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year and oppressing the Muslim Brotherhood.
After his election, Mursi shunted aside generals who had held interim power after Mubarak and appointed a new high command. But the army nonetheless portrays itself as a guarantor of national security.
"Talks without the cancellation of the referendum - and a change to the constitution to make it a constitution for all Egyptians and not the Brotherhood - will lead to nothing and will be no more than a media show," said Ahmed Hamdy, a 35-year-old office worker.
But the fact that the army was calling such talks "is an indication to all parties that the crisis is coming to a head and that they need to end it quickly", he said.
Finance Minister Mumtaz al-Said disclosed on Tuesday that a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan, a cornerstone of Egypt's economic recovery hopes, would be delayed until next month because of the crisis.
Any further delay beyond the first quarter of next year would damage recovery hopes, HSBC warned in a research note.
"Egypt's room for manoeuvre, however, is now extremely limited and the consequences of more protracted delay will be severe," the bank said.
On Tuesday, thousands of opposition supporters had gathered outside the presidential palace in Cairo to demand that Mursi postpone Saturday's referendum.
A bigger crowd of flag-waving Islamist Mursi backers, who want the vote to go ahead, assembled at two mosques and some remained on the streets through the night. There were also protests in Alexandria and other cities.
The latest 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.