CAIRO (AP) — Egypt postponed the start of early voting on a disputed draft constitution Friday, signaling an attempt by President Mohammed Morsi’s government to back down and give room for negotiations with the opposition as it faces mass protests calling for the referendum to be canceled.
The announcement made by the head of Egypt’s election committee Ismail Hamdi came a day after Morsi appealed for dialogue even as he accused tens of thousands of protesters marching on his palace of being infiltrated by thugs. He has so far made no concrete concessions to defuse the crisis that has plunged the country into new turmoil and the two sides appeared at a deadlock.
Egypt political crisis has been building up since Morsi issued a decree on Nov. 22 that gave him absolute powers and immunity from judicial oversight.
The crisis intensified when Morsi called for a Dec. 15 national referendum on the draft constitution produced by Islamists-led constituent assembly after rushing it in a marathon session. Liberals had quit the assembly, which was already facing legal appeals to disband it. The draft came with loopholes and was infused with articles that liberals fear would pave the way for Islamizing Egypt.
The opposition has rejected talks, saying Morsi must first cancel the referendum and meet other demands.
Hamdi said the weeklong voting by Egyptians abroad, which had been due to begin Saturday, will begin Wednesday instead.
It was not immediately clear if the postponement was a concession or how that would affect the overall referendum timeline.
But Legal Affairs Minister Mohammed Mahsoub said the administration was weighing several proposals. He said those included calling off the referendum and returning the draft to the constituent assembly for changes or disbanding the whole constituent assembly and forming a new one, either by direct vote or upon an agreement among the political forces.
‘‘We have a big chance tomorrow,’’ he said referring to what he said a meeting between political forces with Morsi. ‘‘There are no deadlines or referendums outside the country. Tomorrow or day after, we might reach a good agreement,’’ he told the network.
Egypt’s Vice President Mahmoud Mekki also told the pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera that he had contacted leading democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei to join the president in dialogue. ElBaradei is leading the newly formed National Salvation Front, an umbrella group of liberals and youth groups that opposed Morsi’s decrees.
He added that ‘‘until now the referendum is due Dec. 15’’ until agreement could be reached.
Before the announcement, after night fell, tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters pushed past barbed wire fences installed by the army and march on the presidential palace, calling for Morsi to ‘‘leave.’’
But on hearing the postponement of vote for Egyptians abroad, some expressed optimism.
‘‘This looks like the beginning of a retraction,’’ said 56-year-old doctor Mohsen Ibrahim. ‘‘This means Morsi may postpone the referendum. It looks like the pressure is working out.’’
But he warned that ‘‘if Morsi doesn’t see the numbers of people protesting, then he will be repeating the same mistake of (Hosni) Mubarak.’’
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.