Last updated: 1 February, 2013

Egyptian top cleric gathers rival political forces in crisis

Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets on Friday in a show of opposition to Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood after a wave of deadly unrest swept the country.

Protesters braved rare Cairo rainfall to march to Tahrir Square and the presidential palace, chanting “Freedom!” and “Morsi is illegitimate!”

Scores of protesters skirmished with riot police several hundred metres (yards) from the square, witnesses said, and two were wounded by birdshot fired by police.

But the clash was far less intense than last week’s deadly unrest which killed 56 people, most of them in Port Said, where violence erupted after 21 residents were sentenced to death over football-related violence a year ago.

Thousands of people protested in Port Said on Friday calling for Morsi’s removal, unfazed by the military deployment in the canal city, and similar marches took place in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.

The opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) joined rival factions on Thursday in condemning violence and supporting efforts for a national dialogue.

But the coalition of mainly liberal and leftist groups also called Friday’s protests demanding a unity government and amendment of the Islamist-drafted constitution which polarised the nation when it was passed in December.

Last week’s violence was the worst since the Morsi came to power last June, promising an economic revival in a country pummelled by two years of instability following an uprising the overthew president Hosni Mubarak.

Morsi is accused of betraying the revolution that brought him to the presidency and of consolidating power in Brotherhood hands.

“We’re here because we are sick of people lying to us,” said protester Ahmed Metwalli in Tahrir Square.

“I voted for Morsi. I thought the Brotherhood, more than any group, would have understood the concept of injustice and try to fix it, but they failed,” added the 27-year-old engineering graduate.

In a statement, the NSF said Egyptians would demonstrate nationwide against “a regime that seeks to impose its will on the people and is managing the country in the interest of the Brotherhood.”

Top Islamic scholar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb chaired Thursday talks between liberal opposition heads, Islamists, youth groups, independents and church members at the headquarters of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning.

They signed an Al-Azhar document supporting “a serious dialogue” and condemning violence, while calling on police to “protect citizens.”

Opposition and NSF leader Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN nuclear watchdog chief, praised the Al-Azhar gathering.

“We come out of these talks with some sort of optimism” despite “the difficult challenges ahead,” he told reporters.

Saad al-Katatni, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said the participants were ready for compromise.

The crisis has sapped the popularity of Morsi — who won the June election with a slender majority — and complicated negotiations for a crucial $4.8-billion IMF loan that could help bail out the teetering economy.

In a statement, the presidency welcomed Thursday’s agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition as “an important step on the road to re-establishing stability.”

The interior ministry said it respected “the right to peaceful protest,” but urged all political forces to ensure “a peaceful and civilised” day on Friday, a spokesman said.