CAIRO, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- Egypt's army chief called for unity talks Wednesday as clashes over a constitutional referendum persisted and most Egyptian judges refused to monitor it.
The talks, including President Mohamed Morsi, judges and "political parties and forces," would seek to resolve the current political crisis, Col. Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi said in a statement by his spokesman.
Sissi is defense minister, the Egyptian armed forces commander in chief and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces junta that ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted Feb. 11, 2011. The junta gave up power June 30 at the start of Morsi's presidency.
The crisis was triggered by Morsi's Nov. 22 decree giving himself sweeping powers beyond judicial review to push through a new constitution drafted by his Islamist allies.
Morsi spokesman Yasser Ali told Egypt's CBC satellite channel Morsi would attend the meeting, which Sissi's spokesman said would not be a political dialogue -- only Morsi could order that -- but rather an opportunity to offer a "message of comfort" to Egyptians.
Also invited were Morsi Cabinet members, "revolutionary youth," Islamic and Christian representatives, media leaders, "artists, laborers and farmers," the statement from Sissi's spokesman said.
The talks would take place at the military's Air Defense Hall at a sports complex in New Cairo outside Cairo at 4:30 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. EST), the statement said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist organization Morsi once led, said it would participate in the meeting. Some opposition members, who contend the draft charter restricts freedoms and gives Islamists vast political influence, said they would not participate in a non-political gathering.
The main secular opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, led by Nobel Peace laureate and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, said it would announce Wednesday if it would call for a "no" vote on Saturday's referendum or an outright boycott.
Voting on the draft constitution was to begin Wednesday for Egyptians living abroad.
An Egyptian court said late Tuesday it had no authority to rule on the referendum. The administrative court of Egypt's Council of State said Morsi's pronouncement to move forward with the referendum was a presidential "sovereign decision" and could therefore not be overruled by the court.
At the same time, Ahmed el-Zind, chairman of the Judges Club, an unofficial body most Egyptian judges are part of, said 90 percent of club members would refuse to monitor the referendum.
He said the action was to protest the draft charter and Morsi's decree.
Egyptian law requires judicial supervision of elections.
Morsi advisers said they had enough willing judicial officials to proceed with the vote, The New York Times reported.
But the judges' decision to boycott the referendum may influence opponents deciding whether to campaign for votes against the disputed charter or to boycott the referendum entirely, the Times said.
Meanwhile, Morsi's government Tuesday postponed a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan intended to help Egypt avert financial collapse.
The government sought the delay in the loan deal, which it struck last month, "in light of the unfolding developments on the ground," the IMF said Tuesday.
Thousands of anti-government protesters descended on downtown Cairo Tuesday, continuing three weeks of often-violent protests that have pitted secular-leaning activists against Morsi's mostly Islamist supporters.
Tensions mounted over reports unidentified gunmen fired birdshot at protesters in Tahrir Square overnight, injuring nine people. Security officials said Tuesday night the birdshot was fired in a personal, non-political dispute.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed "deep concerns" over Egypt's situation and repeated calls for protesters to demonstrate peacefully and for security forces to act with restraint.
She declined to comment on whether Washington thought the referendum should be postponed.