A hardline Islamist party normally allied to Egypt's president joined the liberal opposition on Wednesday in calling for a national unity government as part of a plan aimed at ending the eruption of political violence that has shaken the country and left more than 60 dead.
The unusual joint call puts further pressure on Islamist President Mohammed Morsi a day after the head of the armed forces warned that Egypt could collapse unless the country's feuding political factions reconcile.
The warning by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was to both sides but was seen as an implicit criticism of Morsi, who has been unable to contain the unrest through an attempted firm hand. Morsi's declaration of a month-long state of emergency and a curfew in three of the cities hardest hit by unrest has been overtly defied by the cities' residents.
Seeking to build momentum from the military's comments, Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the main liberal opposition National Salvation Front, called on Wednesday for a broad national dialogue grouping Morsi's government, the Muslim Brotherhood, the ultraconservative Salafis and — in a nod to the generals' role — the military.
The opposition has depicted the mayhem as a backlash against Islamists' insistence on monopolizing power and as evidence that the Brotherhood and its allies are unable to manage the country on their own. The past week has seen protester attacks on police stations and government buildings, fierce clashes with security forces, shootings at protester funerals, cut-offs of railroads, mass marches and a virtual outright revolt in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
Officials in the president's office and the Brotherhood, in turn, have accused the opposition of condoning or even instigating violence in a bid to thwart Islamists' repeated election victories. Morsi has invited the opposition to a dialogue, but the Front and most other parties refused, seeing his talks as window-dressing.
On Wednesday, the Salafi al-Nour Party joined the Salvation Front in an initiative calling for a national unity government — effectively eroding the Muslim Brotherhood's grip on decision-making —and for the amending of contentious articles of the Islamist-backed constitution.
For weeks, Morsi and the Brotherhood have ignored the Front's repeated calls for a unity government. On Wednesday, Morsi dismissed the need for one, pointing out that a new government would be formed anyway after parliamentary elections expected in a few months. He downplayed the significance of the explosion of violence.
"What is happening now in Egypt is natural in nations experiencing a shift to democracy," Morsi told reporters during a brief visit to Germany on Wednesday. "Nations take time to stabilize and in some countries that took many years. It has only been two years inEgypt and, God willing, things will stabilize soon."
The unrest at home forced Morsi to truncate a planned visit to Europe, cancelling a Paris leg and reducing his Berlin visit to a few hours to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel, after which he was returning home.
Al-Nour and the Front make odd partners
Salafis in general have strongly backed Morsi in the crisis and regularly denounced the liberal and secular opposition, accusing them of trying to reverse Islamists' election victories and of trying to prevent Egypt from being ruled by sharia, or Islamic law. The party's move may be aimed at distancing itself from Morsi's Brotherhood ahead of the parliament elections.
After meeting with leaders from the Front, al-Nour chief Younis Makhyoun said, "We are considered Islamists, and we are from the Islamic current but when we work for the sake of national reconciliation, we have to be neutral ... Egypt for all Egyptians."
Egypt must not be ruled "by a single faction... but there must be a real partnership in decision-making and administration," he told reporters.
Meanwhile, two more protesters were killed Wednesday when they were hit with birdshot during clashes with police near Cairo's Tahrir Square, a security official said, as violence continued for the seventh day. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Violence has spiraled after first erupting in Cairo on eve of last Friday's second anniversary of the uprising that toppled authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. It since spread around the country, with the worst violence in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, which has virtually declared itself in revolt against Morsi's government. Nile Delta provinces have also witnessed street clashes and riots in front of state institutions, but no deaths reported.
In response, Morsi declared a 30-day state of emergency and night curfew in Port Said and two other Canal cities, Suez and Ismailiya, and their surrounding provinces.
But every night since it went into effect, tens of thousands of residents in the city have defied the curfew with nighttime rallies and marches, chanting against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which forms the backbone of his rule.
Faced with the anger, Morsi authorized governors of the three provinces to either cancel or limit curfew hours. All three governments did so, reducing the curfew to four hours in Port Said, three hours in Ismailiya and six hours in Suez, down from seven hours.
Youth groups have called for mass rallies on Friday to march to the presidential palace in Cairo to demand an end to Morsi's rule.
On Wednesday, security forces arrested five masked protesters suspected to belong to the Black Bloc, a group of protesters who wear masks and claim to "defend the revolution" against Islamists. The governments and state media have depicted them as dangerous thugs fueling violence against police and state institutions. Top prosecutor Talaat Abdullah ordered a day earlier that all members of the group be arrested on sight.
In a tweet, ElBaradei called for an immediate meeting between Morsi, the defense and interior ministers, the Brotherhood's political party, Salafi parties and the National Salvation Front "to take urgent steps to stop the violence and start a serious dialogue."
He said stopping the violence is the priority, but stuck by the front's previous conditions for holding a dialogue — that Morsi form a national unity government and form a commission to amend contentious articles of the Islamist-backed constitution.
Calls for neutrality
The joint initiative with al-Nour calls for the replacement of the controversial top prosecutor, who was appointed by Morsi, and the "neutrality of state institutions" — a reference to accusations the Brotherhood and Salafis are trying to dominate national bodies. It also calls for a commission to amend contentious constitutional articles.
Al-Nour underwent a period of internal fighting that ended with election of new leader, after the party's founder split and formed a new party. The party is the second biggest political force, securing a quarter of the seats in the lower house of parliament in elections in late 2011. The lower house was since disbanded by a court order and new elections are expected within a few months.
"Clearly there are real divisions within the Islamist bloc and they are not on the same page," said Osama el-Ghazali Harb, member of the opposition and a political scientist. "Everyone feels that the situation is escalating and reaching a dangerous level. The country fracturing and there is violence everywhere."