CAIRO – Egypt's liberal opposition leader on Wednesday called for a broad national dialogue with the rival Islamist government, ultraconservative Salafis and the powerful military, aimed at ending the country's eruption of political violence that has left more than 60 dead the past week.
Mohamed ElBaradei's appeal for a dialogue -- and his inclusion of the military generals in the call -- appeared to be an attempt to build pressure on 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.
ElBaradei's call also comes as cracks began to appear among Morsi's Islamist allies.
The ultraconservative Salafi al-Nour Party put forward its own initiative for resolving the crisis, and its leader held talks Wednesday with the rival liberal opposition National Salvation Front, headed by ElBaradei. The two agreed to push Morsi to create a national unity government -- effectively eroding the Muslim Brotherhood's grip on decision-making -- and commit to rewriting parts of the controversial constitution.
Al-Nour leader Younis Makhyoun told reporters after the meeting that Egypt must not be ruled "by a single faction... but there must be a real partnership in decision-making and administration."
"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," he said. "Egypt for all Egyptians."
The leader of the liberal Wafd Party, Sayyed Badawi, told reporters that al-Nour has presented a serious initiative with a clear agenda, so the Salvation Front welcomed it.
Morsi, however, dismissed talk of a unity government and downplayed the significance of the explosion of violence.
"What is happening now in Egypt is natural in nations experiencing a shift to democracy," he 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 in Egypt and, God willing, things will stabilize soon."
He said parliamentary elections would be held in three or four months and that would in any case lead to formation of a new government. The unrest at home forced Morsi to truncate a planned visit to Europe, reducing his Berlin visit to a few hours to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and outright cancelling a Paris leg.
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 has made gestures of backing down from the declaration. On Tuesday he authorized governors of the three provinces to either cancel or limit curfew hours in an attempt to assuage public anger. Suez Governor Gen. Samer Aglan said that he will ease the curfew while deploying more troops to the streets after midnight.
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, the National Salvation Front and parties of the ultraconservative Salafi movement "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.
Morsi has been calling for the opposition into a national dialogue conference that has been meeting for more than a month. But almost all opposition parties have refused, calling the conference mere window dressing to allow Morsi to look like he is listening to opponents while keeping all power to himself.
The Front has depicted the unrest 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.
Morsi and the Brotherhood, in turn, have ignored the National Salvation Front's repeated demands for a national unity government. Amid the crisis of the past week, officials in the presidency and Brotherhood have accused the opposition of condoning -- or instigating -- violence in the streets in an attempt to overturn the results of multiple elections that Islamists have consistently won.
The al-Nour Party's separate initiative, however, pointed to cracks in Morsi's support and Salafi party attempts to present itself as trustworthy political partner who are open to even the most liberal and secular-minded politicians.
The party called for the controversial prosecutor general appointed by Morsi to be replaced, a new government to be formed, and for there to be reconciliation with former regime members who are not facing charges of corruption, wrongdoing or killings.
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."