US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo on Saturday to push for a way out of Egypt's violence-wracked political impasse, underlining the need for a consensus to overcome a crippling economic crisis.
As Kerry arrived from Turkey, protesters torched a police station in the canal city of Port Said which is entering its third week of civil disobedience, reflecting the size of the task facing the secretary of state in Egypt, which has been rocked by months of unrest, AFP reported.
Kerry is due to hold talks with Islamist President Mohamed Morsi during the visit, which saw him sit with political parties and civil society groups.
In a meeting with Egyptian business leaders, Kerry stressed the importance of a $4.8-billion IMF loan, which is partly conditioned on a measure of agreement between Egypt's divided factions.
"It is paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy gets stronger, that it gets back on its feet," Kerry said. "It is clear to us that the IMF arrangement needs to be reached. So we need to give the marketplace the confidence."
He also met Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, who said he was "very satisfied" with the meeting, before evening talks with his Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Kamel Amr.
Outside the foreign ministry, dozens of protesters burned pictures of Kerry as they chanted against perceived US support for Morsi. The opposition criticises Washington for urging it to reconsider a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections.
The top US diplomat met former Arab League chief Amr Mussa and spoke with Mohamed ElBaradei by telephone. ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi from the opposition coalition National Salvation Front had refused to meet Kerry in person.
All three are leading figures in the NSF, a coalition of liberal and leftist parties opposed to Morsi, which has announced a boycott of elections that begin in April.
Egypt has been deeply divided since Morsi, elected in June as part of the transition that followed Hosni Mubarak's ouster in early 2011, issued a decree in November expanding his powers and paving the way for the adoption of an Islamist-drafted constitution.
Morsi rescinded the decree under intense pressure, but the political turmoil has fuelled weeks of unrest and clashes that have left dozens dead, with protesters denouncing the president for failing to address political and economic concerns.
During his visit, Kerry will stress the "importance of building consensus," a State Department official said, after the NSF call for an election boycott.
He would emphasise that "if they want to engage, if they want to ensure that their views are taken into account, the only way to do that is to participate," the official said.
"They can't sit aside and just assume that some how by magic all of this is going to happen. They have got to participate."
A political consensus would pave the way for the crucial loan from the International Monetary Fund, which in turn will unlock several pledges of aid for Egypt's battered economy.
Egyptian officials have said they will continue talks with the IMF on the loan, which has been delayed amid political unrest and might possibly be signed after a parliament is in place in July.
Morsi has called for staggered parliamentary elections to start on April 22. The NSF, which groups mainly liberal and leftist parties and movements, said it would boycott the polls, expressing doubts over their transparency.
The opposition, less organised than the Muslim Brotherhood, insists that the president appoint a new government before the election. The presidency says the new parliament should have the right to appoint the cabinet.
Meanwhile, in Port Said, the interior ministry said 500 protesters threw stones and petrol bombs at the police station, setting it on fire, and then blocked fire engines from approaching the site of the blaze.
The official MENA news agency said protesters also stormed a police building in the Nile Delta city of Mansura, where overnight clashes left one person dead and dozens injured.