CAIRO – Thousands of Egyptians marched across the country, chanting against the rule of the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, in a fresh wave of protests Friday, even as cracks appeared in the ranks of the opposition after its political leaders met for the first time with the rival Muslim Brotherhood.
The protests continue a week of political rioting that engulfed the country and left up to 60 people dead. The violence prompted Morsi to declare a state of emergency in three restive Suez Canal cities, impose a curfew that thousands of the cities' angry residents defied in night rallies, and left him with eroding popularity in the street.
On Friday, thousands of protesters in the Mediterranean city of Port Said at the northern tip of Suez Canal, which witnessed the worst clashes and biggest number of causalities the past days, pumped their fists in the air while chanting, "Leave, leave, Morsi." They threatened to escalate pressure with civil disobedience and a work stoppage at the vital Suez Canal authority if their demand for punishment of those responsible for protester death is not met.
"The people want the Republic of Port Said," protesters chanted, voicing a wide sentiment among residents that they are fed up of negligence and mistreatment by central government and that they want to virtual independence.
"Your policy is: I don't hear, I don't talk and I don't see," read a flyer distributed by protesters.
Buses carrying protesters from two other Suez Canal cities of Suez and Ismailia carried more protesters to the Port Said rallies.
Last week's violence first erupted on the eve of the second anniversary of 2011 uprising that toppled down longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak's regime. It accelerated a day later when security forces fired at protesters killing at least 11 dead, most of them in the city of Suez.
The next day, riots exploded in Port Said after a court convicted and sentenced to death 21 defendants — mostly locals — for a mass soccer riot in the city's main stadium a year ago. Residents saw the verdict as politicized. Over the next few days, around 40 people were killed in the city in unrest that saw security forces firing on a funeral.
Feb. 1 marks the first anniversary of the mass soccer riot in Port Said that left 74 people dead mostly fans of Al-Ahly, Egypt's most popular soccer team.
Egypt's main opposition political grouping, the National Salvation Front, called for Friday's protests in Cairo, demanding Morsi form a national unity government and amend the constitution, moves they say would prevent the Islamist from governing solely in the interest of his Muslim Brotherhood group.
"The policies of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood are pushing the country to the brink, but they are adopting the same language of the old regime and accusing their opposition of betrayl," the opposition said in a statement. "Instead of responding to the street demands, and working with the rest of the national forces that contributed in the revolution to rescue the nation, they are pointing their arrows to media to stifle freedoms," it added
However, the call came a day after the Front held a meeting with Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood under the aegis of Egypt's premier Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, in their first ever meeting. They and other politicians signed a joint statement denouncing violence.
The meeting appeared to have caused rifts within the opposition, with some saying the Front had handed the Brotherhood the high ground by signing a statement that seemed to focus on protester violence and made no mention of police use of excessive force or explicitly talk of political demands.
"Al-Azhar's initiative talks too broadly about violence as if it's the same to kill a person or break a window and makes no difference between defensive violence and aggressive violence, offering a political cover to expand the repression, detention, killing and torture by the hands of police for the authority's benefit," read a joint statement by 70 activists, liberal politicians, actors and writers.
"The initiative didn't represent the core of the problem and didn't offer solutions but came to give more legitimacy to the existing authority," it added.
Those who attended the Thursday's rare meeting between Egypt's rival political camps defended the anti-violence initiative.
Ahmed Maher, co-founder of April 6 group which led the anti-Mubarak uprising, said in a tweet: "I am against violence as a solution." An opposition party leader Ahmed Said said in a statement, "no one can say no to an initiative to stop violence."