In Port Said, alienation from Cairo makes anger burn hotter
The violent upheaval in the Suez Canal city of Port Said has deeper roots than the resentment toward President Mohamed Morsi that triggered protests elsewhere in Egypt.
Port Said, Egypt
Egyptians gathered outside a mosque yesterday in this Suez Canal city to mourn those killed the day before – killed as they marched in a similar funeral procession for people who died a day earlier day in clashes with police.
One man pulled out an Egyptian flag and attempted to set it on fire. Some in the crowd tried to stop him, but soon, smoke was rising from the strips of red, white, and black. The crowd broke into cheers at a sight that would be unthinkable in protests in almost any other Egyptian city, where antigovernment protesters raise the flag as they battle with police.
Many in Port Said don't see their protests against President Mohamed Morsi and clashes with police in the context of the anti-Morsi protests and riots roiling other cities. They say they are fighting their own battle – for the 21 people they say were unjustly convicted and sentenced to death for deadly soccer riots in the town one year ago, and for those killed in the past three days.
But in the city, where initial wire reports indicated that as many as 47 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured since Jan. 26, the anger and sense of alienation from the rest of Egypt is ferocious. As anger at Mr. Morsi burns hotter with each death, Port Said exemplifies the lack of trust in state institutions that is present not just here but in much of Egypt, and the challenge Morsi faces in reasserting authority and establishing security in that environment. Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited to reflect conflicting estimates of the number of people killed in Port Said.
The police here were unable to reassert authority, and Morsi sent in the Army and declared a state of emergency and a curfew in three Suez Canal provinces. But clashes are ongoing, and thousands took to the streets to flout the curfew last night, presenting Morsi with a serious crisis.
“As long as there is no justice, we are not going to stop protesting. This is going to end only when they give us their rights,” says Mohsen El Domiati, just hours after the funeral of his brother Mohamed El Domiati, who was shot and killed by police, he says, two days ago. “We are eventually going to die, but we are not going alone. We're going to take lots of them with us,” he says, referring to police. He speaks bitterly, his eyes red and a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead. “Nothing could happen to make me ever trust the police.”
“Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi are one and the same,” says his brother-in-law, Mohamed Mohsen. He voted for Morsi, he says, and now he regrets it. “I never thought something like this would happen. I thought he was a respectful person. I thought he knew Islam.”
Clashes with police
The violence here began Saturday, Jan. 26, when a court in Cairo sentenced 21 people to death for the deaths of 74 people after a soccer match in Port Said last year.
After the game between the Port Said team, Al Masry, and the Cairo team, called Al Ahly, Masry fans rushed the visiting Ahly fans, sparking the deadly chaos. People in Port Said say the attack was planned by members of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, and that police officials were complicit.
Those charged with the violence, many of them Al Masry fans from Port Said, are scapegoats, Port Said residents say, used by the central government to placate Al Ahly fans, who threatened violence if they felt that justice was not served.
On Saturday, families of those sentenced to death and other Port Said residents gathered at the prison where the convicted were being held. Some brought guns and fired on the police station. Two policemen were killed, and police killed dozens in response, most from gunshot wounds. Port Said residents described seeing a man in a wheelchair, known around town because he sat on the sidewalk and sold tissues to passersby, shot in the street, and others shot as they tried to rescue him.
The situation spiraled out of control as residents – some armed with guns and Molotov cocktails – clashed with police. The next day, gunfire and teargas disrupted a funeral march, leading to even more deaths. Clashes were still ongoing last night.
Port Said is a relatively modern city in Egypt, but its residents still boast of their proud history. Founded during the building of the Suez Canal, the city sits on the northern mouth of the strategic waterway. It played a courageous role in the Egyptian resistance during the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt, and was evacuated during subsequent wars with Israel. The city was eventually given duty-free status, exempting it from many import fees, partly as a recognition of its role.
But in 1999, during a visit to the city by then-President Mubarak, presidential guards shot dead a man they said was trying to assassinate him. Many Port Said residents say he was only trying to give the president a letter. But the government revoked some of the financial privileges granted to the city, and residents say police began treating them badly when they went to Cairo. Port Said residents say part of the reason there is such animosity toward Cairo's Al Ahly soccer team is because, to them, it is a symbol of the central government.
In yesterday's funeral march for those killed the day before, some of the thousands of impassioned mourners called for independence, or international protection, for Port Said.
“We don't want to be part of Egypt anymore. We are only talking about Port Said now,” says Mr. Mohsen. Others said bitterly that police used rubber bullets in Cairo, but live ammunition in Port Said. When protesters died in Cairo, the entire nation rose in anger, but when dozens were killed in Port Said, the rest of the country ignored deaths and vilified the city, said others.
“The worst thing is that they started shooting at a funeral,” says Mohamed Tarek El Masry. “Even during the revolution they didn't do that. Even the occupying forces [during the Suez Crisis] let the people of Port Said bury their dead. Now our own government treats us worse than that.”
He acknowledges that some who fought police were armed, but says police should use escalating force – teargas, water cannons, and rubber bullets before live ammunition, instead of simply shooting at people.
But Port Said was not coursing with anger at Morsi until the verdict and the subsequent killings. While there were large anti-Morsi protests in many cities across the country on Jan. 25, the two-year anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak, there were only small protests in Port Said. Meanwhile, thousands flocked to protests against the trial.
Now, anger at Morsi is strong here. Protesters charge him with unleashing the same brutal tactics Mubarak used against protesters. As the funeral march passed the stadium where the 74 died last year, the crowd roared, “Leave!”
It was a common chant during the uprising that toppled Mubarak, and now it was directed at Morsi. Their shouts drowned out the sound of a military helicopter hovering above. An older man sprayed “No to the Ikhwan,” a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, on a brick wall.
As evening fell, gunshots cracked through the market district of the city, coming from the direction of the police station that had been attacked Saturday. Nearby, a crowd had gathered to watch a television interview with relatives of some of those sentenced to death. Amid the echoes of gunshots, they broke into defiant chants. “Enforce the curfew on your mother!” they shouted to Morsi.
At night, thousands filled the street in a deliberate rejection of the curfew announced by the president. As they marched through the city, the Army did nothing to enforce the ban on nighttime movement.