CAIRO: Egypt's powerful army called for President Mohamed Morsi and the secular opposition to meet to resolve a deepening crisis over a constitutional referendum as the rival camps organised mass protests Tuesday.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the country's armed forces chief and defence minister, made the appeal "for the sake of Egypt" to all political groups and movements to meet on Wednesday at a Cairo military sports complex, according to a statement posted on the military's official Facebook page.
It came as tens of thousands of protesters filled Cairo streets to demonstrate for and against the referendum called for Saturday on a draft constitution backed by Morsi and his allies.
Despite fears the rival rallies could mix, sparking clashes like those seen outside the presidential palace last week when seven people were killed, there were no immediate reports of any violence at Tuesday's demonstrations.
Troops nevertheless had orders from the president to use police powers to protect "vital state institutions" if needed.
Outside the palace, thousands of opposition protesters tore down a metal and concrete barricade to denounce the Saturday referendum, forcing hundreds of soldiers back.
But they made no move to storm the palace itself, and stood around in festive spirits chanting anti-Morsi slogans.
"We are here to say: 'Down with the illegitimate constitution'... If the referendum happens we will have to vote. But hopefully it won't," said one protester, Ahmed Badawy, 29.
At a much bigger counter-demonstration a few kilometres (miles) away gathering tens of thousands of referendum supporters, the mood was equally calm but determined.
"It's the last battle for Islam against the secularists who want to ruin Egypt," said Ahmed Alaa, who was bussed in from the north of the country.
Around him the crowd held up banners saying "Yes to the constitution," and waved Saudi and black Islamist flags as well as the Egyptian one.
However a key group of judges said on Tuesday that they would refuse to oversee the plebiscite. It was not known whether other judges would follow their lead.
The main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, is weighing the army plea for a meeting. It has previously said that it would not consider talks unless the referendum is called off. (AFP)