CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi declared a month-long state of emergency in three cities on the Suez Canal, where dozens of people have been killed in protests that have swept the nation and deepened a political crisis facing the Islamist leader.
Hundreds of demonstrators in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia turned out against the decision within moments of Mursi's announcement late on Sunday, which came after the death toll from protests and violence that erupted last week hit 49.
Mursi also called for a national dialogue with his rivals for later on Monday, but the early response from members of the main opposition coalition suggested they saw little point, saying the president only seemed to listen to his allies.
Most deaths have been in Port Said, where 40 were killed in just two days. Riots were sparked on Saturday when a court sentenced to death several people from the city on charges related to deadly rioting at a soccer match last year. Mourners at Sunday's funerals in the port, where guns are common, directed their anger at Mursi.
Violence in Egypt's cities has extended to a fifth day. Police fired volleys of teargas at dozens of youths hurling stones on Monday near Cairo's Tahrir Square, where opponents have camped for weeks to protest against Mursi, who they say betrayed the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
"We want to bring down the regime and end the state that is run by the Muslim Brotherhood," said Ibrahim Eissa, a 26-year-old cook, protecting his face from teargas wafting towards him from police lines near Tahrir, the cauldron of the 2011 revolt.
Propelled to power in a June election by the Brotherhood, Mursi's presidency has lurched through a series of political crises and violent demonstrations, compounding his task of shoring up a teetering economy and preparing for a parliamentary election to cement the new democracy in a few months.
"The protection of the nation is the responsibility of everyone. We will confront any threat to its security with force and firmness within the remit of the law," Mursi said, offering condolences to families of victims in the canal zone cities.
"WASTE OF TIME"
Appealing to his opponents, the president called for a national dialogue on Monday at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), inviting a range of Islamist allies as well as liberal, leftist and other opposition groups and individuals to discuss the crisis.
The main opposition National Salvation Front coalition gathered in Cairo to discuss a response, but several members have already suggested they do not expect much from the meeting, raising the prospect of poor attendance.
"Unless the president takes responsibility for the bloody events and pledges to form a government of national salvation and a balanced committee to amend the constitution, any dialogue will be a waste of time," Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent politician who founded the Constitution Party, wrote on Twitter.
Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist politician and presidential candidate who is another leading member of the Front, said he would not attend Monday's meeting "unless the bloodshed stops and the people's demands are met".
Ahmed Said of the liberal Free Egyptians Party said Mursi's tone on Sunday night was more threatening than conciliatory. "Egypt is in danger and completely split," he told Reuters.
Egypt's politics has become deeply polarized. Although Islamists have swept to victory in a parliamentary poll and presidential vote, the disparate opposition has been united by Mursi's bid late last year to expand his powers and fast-track a constitution with an Islamist hue through a referendum.
Mursi's opponents accuse him of listening only to his Islamist friends and reneging on a pledge to be a president for all Egyptians. Islamists say their rivals want to overthrow by undemocratic means Egypt's first freely elected leader.
The Front has distanced itself from the latest flare-ups but said Mursi should have acted far sooner to impose extra security measures that would have ended the violence.
"Of course we feel the president is missing the real problem on the ground, which is his own policies," spokesman Khaled Dawoud said. "His call to implement emergency law was an expected move, given what is going on, namely thuggery and criminal actions."
Even in Tahrir, some protesters said violence and the high death toll in Port Said and other cities on the strategic Suez waterway meant there was little choice but to impose emergency law, although they, too, blamed Mursi for fury on the streets.
"They needed the state of emergency there because there is so much anger," said Mohamed Ahmed, 27, a protester walking briskly from a cloud of teargas spreading into Tahrir Square.
However, activists in the three cities affected have pledged to defy the curfew that will start at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) each evening and last until 6 a.m. (0400 GMT).
Some opposition groups have also called for more protests on Monday, which marks the second anniversary of one of the bloodiest days in the revolution that erupted on January 25, 2011, and brought an end to Mubarak's iron rule 18 days later.
Rights activists said Mursi's declaration was a backward step for Egypt, which was under emergency law for Mubarak's entire 30-year rule. His police used the sweeping arrest provisions to muzzle dissent and round up opponents, including members of the Brotherhood and even Mursi himself.
Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch in Cairo said the police, still hated by many Egyptians for their heavy-handed tactics under Mubarak, would once again have the right to arrest people "purely because they look suspicious", undermining efforts to create a more efficient and respected police force.
"It is a classic knee-jerk reaction to think the emergency law will help bring security," she said. "It gives so much discretion to the Ministry of Interior that it ends up causing more abuse, which in turn causes more anger."
(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh in Cairo and Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia; Editing by Will Waterman)
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