CAIRO, Egypt (Reuters) - Egypt's army chief said political strife was pushing the state to the brink of collapse - a stark warning from the institution that ran the country until last year as Cairo's first freely elected leader struggles to contain bloody street violence.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, appointed by President Mohamed Mursi last year to head the military, added in a statement on Tuesday that one of the primary goals of deploying troops in cities on the Suez Canal was to protect the waterway that is vital for Egypt's economy and world trade.
Sisi's comments, published on an official army Facebook page, followed 52 deaths in the past week of disorder and highlighted the mounting sense of crisis facing Egypt and its Islamist head of state who is struggling to fix a teetering economy and needs to prepare Egypt for a parliamentary election in a few months that is meant to cement the new democracy.
Violence largely subsided on Tuesday, although some youths again hurled rocks at police lines in Cairo near Tahrir Square.
It seemed unlikely that Sisi was signaling the army wants to take back the power it held for six decades since the end of the colonial era and through an interim period after the overthrow of former air force chief Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
But his message sent a powerful message that Egypt's biggest institution, with a huge economic as well as security role and a recipient of massive direct U.S. subsidies, is worried about the fate of the nation, after five days of turmoil in major cities.
"The continuation of the struggle of the different political forces ... over the management of state affairs could lead to the collapse of the state," said General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also defense minister in the government Mursi appointed.
He said the economic, political and social challenges facing the country represented "a real threat to the security of Egypt and the cohesiveness of the Egyptian state" and the army would remain "the solid and cohesive block" on which the state rests.
Sisi was picked by Mursi after the army handed over power to the new president in June once Mursi had sacked Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, in charge of Egypt during the transition and who had also been Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years.
RALLY AT FUNERALS
After almost seven months since Mursi took office, Egypt politics have become even more deeply polarized.
Opponents spurned a call by Mursi for talks on Monday to try to end the violence. Instead, protesters have rallied in Cairo and Alexandria, and in the three Suez Canal cities - Port Said, Ismailia and Suez - where Mursi imposed emergency rule.
On Tuesday, thousands were again on the streets of Port Said to mourn the deaths of two people in the latest clashes there, taking the total toll in Mediterranean port alone to 42 people. Most were killed by gunshots in a city where weapons are rife.
Mohamed Ezz, a Port Said resident speaking by telephone, heard heavy gunfire through the night. "Gunshots damaged the balcony of my flat, so I went to stay with my brother," he said.
Residents in the three canal cities had taken to the streets in protest at a nightly curfew now in place there.
In Cairo on Tuesday afternoon, police again fired teargas as stone-throwing youths in a street near Tahrir Square, the centre of the 2011 uprising. But the clashes were less intense than previous days and traffic was able to cross the area. Street cleaners swept up the remains of burnt tires and other debris.
Street flare-ups are a common occurrence in divided Egypt, frustrating many people desperate for order and economic growth.
Although the general's comments were notably blunt, Egypt's military has voiced similar concerns in the past, pledging to protect the nation. But it has refused to be drawn back into a direct political role after its reputation as a neutral party took a pounding during the 17 months after Mubarak fell.
"Egyptians are really alarmed by what is going on," said Cairo-based analyst Elijah Zarwan, adding that the army was reflecting that broader concern among the wider public.
"But I don't think it should be taken as a sign that the military is on the verge of stepping in and taking back the reins of government," he added.
In December, Sisi offered to host a national dialogue when Mursi and the rivals were again at loggerheads and the streets were aflame. But the invitation was swiftly withdrawn before the meeting went ahead, apparently because the army was wary of becoming embroiled again in Egypt's polarized politics.
Protests initially flared during the second anniversary of the uprising that erupted on January 25, 2011 and toppled Mubarak 18 days later. They have been exacerbated by riots in Port Said where residents were angered when a court sentenced to death several people from the city over deadly soccer violence.
Since the 2011 revolt, Islamists who Mubarak spent his 30-year rule suppressing have won two referendums, two parliamentary elections and a presidential vote.
But that legitimacy has been challenged by an opposition that accuses Mursi of imposing a new form of authoritarianism. Mursi's supporters says protesters want to overthrow Egypt's first ever democratically elected leader by undemocratic means.
The army has already been deployed in Port Said and Suez and the government agreed a measure to let soldiers arrest civilians as part of the state of emergency. Sisi reiterated that the army's role would be support the police in restoring order.
The instability has provoked unease in Western capitals, where officials worry about the direction of a powerful regional player that has a peace deal with Israel. The United States condemned the bloodshed and called on Egyptian leaders to make clear violence was not acceptable.
Mursi's invitation to rivals to a national dialogue with Islamists on Monday was spurned by the main opposition National Salvation Front coalition, which described it as "cosmetic".
The only liberal politician who attended, Ayman Nour, told Egypt's al-Hayat channel after the meeting ended late on Monday that attendees agreed to meet again in a week.
He said Mursi had promised to look at changes to the constitution requested by the opposition but did not consider the opposition's request for a government of national unity. Mursi's pushing through last month of a new constitution which critics see as too Islamic remains a bone of contention.
When Mursi announced he was imposing a state of emergency on the Suez Canal cities he pledged to confront threats to security "with force and firmness." But Some activists said Mursi's measures to try to impose control could backfire.
"Martial law, state of emergency and army arrests of civilians are not a solution to the crisis," said Ahmed Maher of the April 6 movement that helped galvanize the 2011 uprising. "All this will do is further provoke the youth. The solution has to be a political one that addresses the roots of the problem."
(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Omar Filmy in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia and Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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