The wave of violence in Port Said, Suez, and Cairo is a symptom of an unresolved political crisis provoked by President Mohamed Morsi.
Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, announced a state of emergency and a curfew in the three Suez Canal provinces where deadly violence has flared for three days. At least three people were killed in Port Said today and hundreds wounded during the funeral for some of the at least 35 people who were killed in rioting there yesterday. The violence began after a court sentenced 21 people to death for a deadly soccer riot last year.
In a fiery televised speech to the nation, he also invited opposition leaders to dialogue tomorrow, and praised the police and the military for protecting state institutions and following orders. He said he would not hesitate to “do much more” to prevent violence. "I have said I am against any emergency measures, but I have said that if I must stop bloodshed and protect the people then I will act," he said.
Violent protests against Mr. Morsi also continued in other cities across Egypt over the weekend. The Egyptian Army was deployed in both Port Said and Suez, where protesters attacked police stations and government buildings after police killed at least nine people during anti-Morsi protests on Friday, the second anniversary of the uprising that unseated former President Hosni Mubarak. Clashes between protesters and police continued in Cairo.
The wave of violence roiling the nation is the largest challenge yet for Morsi. Elected last summer, he provoked a popular backlash when he grabbed power by sidestepping the judiciary, and pushed a new constitution to a vote despite the anger of the opposition. He and his party had portrayed the document as a path to stability. While the violence in Port Said is separate from the anti-Morsi protests taking place in other cities, analysts say in both cases the unrest is a symptom of an unresolved political crisis and the decreasing legitimacy of state institutions.
“I think it's indicative of the way in which the authority and legitimacy of the state have receded, and is reflective of a very deep-seated political crisis," says Michael Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation who is currently in Cairo. "It's going to be very difficult to reestablish that authority because they are acting unilaterally. And the tools that they are employing to try to reestablish authority are the tools of repression that have and continue to generate a destabilizing effect in the form of protests and mass mobilization," he says of Morsi's government.
A constitution drafting process that marginalized the opposition, and bringing the document to a vote despite their protests, “served to institutionalize the political crisis,” he says. “And I think we're seeing some of the fruits of that. It's been coupled with frustration that he has not been able to deliver tangible reforms or improvements in people's lives.”
Morsi's speech was his first verbal address to the nation since violence began Friday. In Port Said, violence broke out Saturday when a court in Cairo sentenced 21 people to death, mostly Port Said soccer fans, to death for the killing of 74 people in a Port Said soccer stadium last year. After a game between the Port Said team and Cairo's Al Ahly club, men from the Port Said fan section rushed the Ahly fans and attacked them. Some were beaten or thrown off the stands, while others suffocated or were trampled to death as they attempted to escape through the exit and found the door locked.
Fans of the Ahly team known as Ultras, who have participated in many of the protests since the uprising, celebrated the verdict in Cairo. In the days leading up to the verdict, they had threatened violence if it was unsatisfactory. But in Port Said, supporters of those sentenced to death rioted, attacking police stations, the prison where the defendants were housed, and government buildings, blocking roads and setting fire to tires in the street. Two of the dead were police officers.
Port Said residents said they felt their young men had become scapegoats for a crime many believe was planned and carried out with complicity of police. The remainder of the 73 defendants in the case, including nine security officials, will face a verdict on March 9.
A funeral procession today for most of those killed yesterday was interrupted by gunfire and tear gas, according to witnesses. State TV said five were shot dead. Mourners chanted “Morsi is God's enemy” during the funeral, reported The Associated Press. At a funeral for the policemen killed in Port Said, police who were attending heckled the Interior minister, forcing him to leave, reported local newspapers.
In Cairo, hundreds of young men clashed with police near Tahrir Square for the fourth day in a row. Clashes broke out even before the large protest against Morsi that took place Friday to mark the second anniversary of the uprising. Police fired tear gas as young men threw rocks and lit tires on fire to provide a smoke screen.
“We want to deliver a message to the president that he's not welcome, that he doesn't represent us,” says protester Muhaab Selim. “Everything he promised us, he didn't do. He's become the president of the people he is from, not of all the people,” he says, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi offered his condolences to the families of those killed and called for peaceful protests in Twitter messages in the early hours of Saturday. Yesterday he convened the newly established National Defense Council for the first time, to discuss troop deployments to Suez and Port Said with top generals. The council called for a national dialogue, and said it may declare a state of emergency and curfew in areas of unrest.
Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, says Morsi is treating the situation like a security crisis, not a political one. “It does not seem that he sees this as a political problem that requires active engagement with the opposition, and revolutionary groups in order to get a negotiated end to this situation,” he says. “I think this signals a loss of legitimacy of President Morsi.”
But he also points out that the protests have not been propelled by the opposition movement. “These are spontaneous explosions of discontent on the part of ordinary citizens,” he says. The coalition formed by prominent politicians and movements that oppose Morsi, called the National Salvation Front, issued a set of demands yesterday, calling on the president to form a national unity government and investigate recent violence, after calling for early presidential elections.