CAIRO // Egypt's government yesterday appealed for calm and called for talks after riots flared across the country, killing at least 31 people in Port Said where crowds stormed through the city when a court handed out death sentences to nearly two dozen football fans for their part in deadly violence following a game last year.
The country's national defence council, headed by president Mohammed Morsi, called for dialogue with "independent national figures" to settle political differences and agree on a system for an upcoming parliamentary election. the statement was read out on state television by information minister Salah Abdel Maqsud The unrest was the latest in a bout of violence that has left at least 38 people dead in two days, including 11 killed in clashes between police and protesters marking Friday's second anniversary of the uprising that overthrew longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
The protests and deaths indicate how polarised the country has become since January 25, 2011, when protesters called for "break, justice, freedom". The same ire and slogans resurfaced during the past two days, this time targetting Mr Morsi and the powerful group from which emerged, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr Morsi cancelled a scheduled trip to Ethiopia yesterday and, for the first time, met with top generals as part of the newly formed defence council.
The violence in Port Said erupted after a judge sentenced 21 people to death for their role in the February 1 football melee that killed 74 fans of the Cairo-based Al-Ahly team. Executions in Egypt are usually carried out by hanging.
"We have a very serious situation in Egypt right now," said retired Major Gen Sameh Seif Al Yazal, an adviser to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Elected in June in the first free and fair presidential elections in the country's history, Mr Morsi originally had a high approval rating among Egyptians who were willing to give him a chance to put the country on track to recover from a tumultuous democratic transition.
But when he attempted to shield his decisions from judicial oversight in November and rushed through a vote on a controversial constitution, he energised an opposition movement and polarised the country. Egypt's worsening economic situation, a series of tragic train accidents and a sense that Mr Morsi is trying to cement the power of the Brotherhood across the government have only fuelled the anger of his opponents.
The worst rioting yesterday was in Port Said, where 27 people were killed in battles with police after a court issued its verdict. In the aftermath of the football fight last year, there were accusations that former members of the Mubarak regime had orchestrated the incident to destabilise the country. However, the public prosecution accused 73 people, including nine policemen and mostly supporters of Port Said's football team, in the killings. The court is scheduled rule on the remaining defendants in March.
After the sentencing was announced, violence erupted near the city's prison where most of the defendants were held. Groups made up mostly of young men attacked police as officers responded with tear gas and batons. There were multiple reports from news agencies and social media of live ammunition fired by both sides. Hundreds more were injured in the attacks, according to the ministry of health.
In Suez, the eastern city which saw the first fatalities in the 2011 uprising, the military deployed troops and armoured personnel carriers to regain control of the strategic city. The Suez Canal is one of Egypt's primary sources of foreign currency. In battles on Friday night that continued into yesterday, at least six were killed, including one soldier.
In a message broadcast on Twitter early yesterday morning, Mr Morsi vowed that Egypt's security services "will chase the criminals and bring them to justice".
In Cairo and Alexandria, the country's largest cities, there were street battles between protesters and police, who exchanged rocks and Molotov cocktails for tear gas canisters in some of the worst fighting since 10 people were killed in front of the presidential palace last month. The demonstrations have for the first time seen black-clad, masked protesters calling themselves the Black Bloc - a reference to similar protest groups that have fought governments in Europe and the United States since the 1980s.
The National Salvation Front, an umbrella opposition group, called on the president to appoint a "national salvation government, cancel the constitution and begin a national reconciliation to avoid the country becoming more enmeshed in chaos.
Public statements from Islamists have made clear that if the situation escalates, there could be even worse violence on the streets of Egypt. Tariq El Zomor, a leading member of the political arm of the Gama'a Islamiyya, the Building and Development Party, warned in a statement on Thursday that "the voice of violence shall prevail above everything else".
"If the president is forced out of power through illegitimate means, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is known to be peaceful, would have to step aside for revolutionary Islamists to fight the anarchists and secularists," he said, according to Al Ahram newspaper. "In this case, martyrdom will be the least we can offer to fight the communists, secularists and Nasserists. They are jealous of the Islamists and their Islamic project."