Egypt’s rival political camps united in a bid to end a weeklong spasm of violence that has undermined the nation’s hopes for stability and economic revival.
An agreement signed at the meeting at Cairo’s al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s pre-eminent religious body, committed all sides to renouncing violence “in all its shapes and forms,” and a “serious dialogue” to overcome rifts. The groups agreed to form a committee to lay out the agenda of the talks, according to a statement issued after the meeting.
The deal was signed by President Mohamed Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood backers and the secularist, youth activist and Coptic Christian rivals who say he sold out the goals of the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. It marks the most broad-based push to end street clashes that have left more than 50 dead and presented the Islamist leader with one of the worst crises he’s faced since his election in June.
There is “no solution to the problems of the path of democratic transition except through dialogue,” Saad el-Katatni, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in a news conference.
The tensions, which mushroomed following the revolution’s Jan. 25 anniversary, have eroded prospects of recovery in an economy growing at the slowest pace in two decades. Egypt’s defense chief warned the current chaos could lead to the “collapse of the state.”
Mursi cut short a trip to Germany yesterday, where he sought to downplay the unrest fuelled by his Jan. 27 emergency declaration in three Suez Canal provinces. Curfews in those areas went unheeded, and the provinces governors, empowered by Mursi, shortened them last night.
Flanking El-Katatni were longtime secular rivals including Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, former presidential hopefuls Amre Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi who like ElBaradei are leaders of the National Salvation Front, as well as the head of the Islamist Salafi Nour Party and other top clerics.
“We came out of this meeting with a sort of optimism,” ElBaradei said. “Everyone is aware that Egypt’s fate is at stake and will exert the utmost effort to rebuild trust between different segments of the Egyptian people.”
The meeting built on a flurry of efforts over the past few days that saw the Nour Party, which had won the second-largest bloc of seats in the now-dissolved parliament, joining ranks with the National Salvation Front to call for a unity government and a committee to review proposed constitutional amendments.
The document signed today made no mention of a new government -- a condition that Mursi has dismissed before parliamentary elections expected in a few months. Instead, it addressed broad talking points on which many had already agreed, including the sanctity of life and property, and adherence to peaceful means of voicing dissent.
The Salvation Front said today it will go ahead with protests tomorrow, which it said will be an “expression of the growing popular dissent from the president’s policies,” and reiterated the call for a national unity government.
The push comes at a critical time for Egypt, which is making a third bid for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan. The IMF says the funds are contingent on broad political consensus in the country, while the government says they are key to securing other donor and investor funds to help plug a ballooning budget deficit.
Fitch yesterday pushed Egypt’s debt rating deeper into junk status, while Moody’s Investors Service said the unrest adds to credit-negative pressures on the economy. Egypt’s benchmark dollar bonds extended losses today, after yields yesterday rose the most since Mursi took office. The pound has slid more than 7 percent in a month.
Many poorer Egyptians blame leaders on both the Brotherhood and the opposition for their troubles, arguing the bickering was self-serving and had driven the country into the ground at the expense of the people.
“We’re being torn apart by two sets of groups, neither of which really represent Egypt,” Tamer Hassan, a 29-year-old who has yet to find full-time work, said in Cairo.
Yesterday, ElBaradei called for an urgent meeting with Mursi, the army and security chiefs and other groups, saying ending the violence was a priority. It marked a reversal for the former UN nuclear agency chief who had previously rejected invitations by the president.
His inclusion of the military came after Defense Minister Abdelfatah Al-Seesi said the bickering was pushing the country to the brink and had left the army in a “serious predicament,” with dual responsibilities not to interfere in peaceful protests while also protecting state property.
The army, Egypt’s traditional power-broker, ran the country between Mubarak’s fall and Mursi’s election. Troops have been deployed in Suez and Port Said to secure installations including Suez Canal facilities from attack.
Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in Middle East studies at the U.K.’s University of Exeter, said ElBaradei and others are playing a “very, very dangerous game” by seeking to bring the military into the discussion.
“The ultimate test for democracy is whether elected civilians are in control of the armed forces and the police or not,” he said. “If not, then it never becomes a democracy.”