CAIRO — Egypt's feuding politicians finally met on Thursday, summoned by the country's most influential Islamic scholar who made them call an end to violence after a week of the deadliest protests since President Mohammed Morsi took office.
The meeting, called by the head of the thousand-year-old al-Azhar university and mosque, was attended both by top officials of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and secularist foes who had previously rebuffed the Islamist president's calls for talks.
Sheik Ahmed al-Tayyeb told the politicians that a national dialogue, "in which all elements of Egyptian society participate, without any exclusion, is the only tool to resolve any problems or differences."
"Political work has nothing to do with violence or sabotage and the welfare of everyone and the fate of our nation depends on respect for the rule of law," the sheik said.
Leaders of all the main political parties signed a document at the meeting renouncing violence, attendee Ahmed Maher said in a Twitter message.
Al-Azhar, one of the main seats of learning in Sunni Islam worldwide, has tended to keep itself above Egypt's political fray. The extraordinary intervention follows a warning by the army chief on Tuesday that street battles could bring about the collapse of the state.
Nearly 60 people have been killed in violent protests, which broke out last week to mark the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
SPIRIT OF THE REVOLUTION
The opposition accuses Morsi of betraying the spirit of the revolution by concentrating too much power in his own hands and those of the Brotherhood, a decades-old underground Islamist movement that was banned under Mubarak.
The Brotherhood accuses its foes of trying to topple Egypt's first elected leader.
Participants at Thursday's meeting included Mahmoud Ezzat, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saad el-Katatni, the head of its political party.
Television footage showed them sitting opposite liberal politicians Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa and leftist Hamdeen Sabahi — all prominent figures in an alliance of parties opposed to Morsi.
ElBaradei is a former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog and Moussa was foreign minister under Mubarak era and then head of the Arab League.
Tayyeb presented the politicians with a document he said had been drawn up by youth activists, which called for them to renounce violence and commit to dialogue.
Leaving the meeting early, liberal politician Ayman Nour described it as "a promising start" towards ending the crisis.
Attending the meeting was a partial reversal for the secularist opposition alliance, which had previously spurned Morsi's call for negotiations, demanding the president first agree to include opponents in a national unity government.
The call for a unity government has also been backed by the hardline Islamist Nour party, in an unlikely alliance of Morsi's critics from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
The Brotherhood rejects a unity government as an attempt by Morsi's foes to take power they could not win at the ballot box.
The crisis forced Morsi to cut short a visit to Europe on Wednesday that had been intended to lure investment to Egypt.
While in Berlin, the president sidestepped calls for a unity government, saying the next cabinet would be formed after parliamentary elections due in April.
The streets have grown quieter in the past few days, and on Wednesday authorities scaled back a curfew imposed by Morsi on three restive cities along the Suez canal where most of the week's blood was spilt.
However, the opposition alliance had called fresh protests for Friday, the Islamic sabbath, which could unleash more violence. It was not immediately clear whether the calls for protest would be affected by the al-Azhar meeting.
The past week's violence followed weeks of demonstrations last year against a new constitution, as Morsi failed to unite Egyptians despite the Brotherhood winning repeated elections.
The rise of an elected Islamist president in the Arab world's most populous state after generations of secularist military rule is probably the most important outcome of the wave of Arab revolts over the past two years.
But his rule has been tarnished by the civil unrest, which has thwarted efforts to end an economic crisis that has forced Cairo to sell off most of its reserves to keep the pound currency from crashing.
Ejijah Zarwan, who analyses Egyptian politics for the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Thursday's intervention by al-Azhar was important, but it was far from clear whether it would be enough to calm the streets.
"It's a good first step. Certainly it will help the formal opposition to be very clearly on record as opposing violence," he said. But a deal among political leaders would not be enough to satisfy Egyptians angry at the failure of the revolution to improve their daily lives.
"The people fighting the police and burning buildings are not partisans of any political party. They might not even vote," Zarwan said. "There's a political crisis and there's a social and economic crisis. A negotiated solution to the political crisis will certainly help but it's just a necessary first step towards resolving the social and economic crisis."
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