Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’ strongly worded comments, his first since the crisis began, appeared aimed at pushing both sides in Egypt’s political divide to reconcile and find a solution to the rapidly spreading protests and riots across much of the country the past six days.
But his breaking of his silence falls heaviest on President Mohammed Morsi, who has been unable to contain the unrest by trying a tough hand, as protesters defied his declaration of a month-long state of emergency and curfew in Port Said and two neighboring cities.
At least 60 people have been killed and hundreds injured since Thursday in clashes between police and protesters angry over what they call Islamists’ moves to monopolize power and failure to address the country’s multiple woes. In his comments, el-Sissi signaled the military would not move to put down protesters, saying troops are in a “grave predicament,” forced to balance between “avoiding confrontation” with citizens and protecting state institutions.
In Cairo on Tuesday, rock-throwing protesters clashed with police firing tear gas for another day in battles that escalated after nightfall near Tahrir Square. The mayhem forced the nearby U.S. Embassy to suspend public services Tuesday, and the night before masked men tried to rob the neighboring five-star Semiramis Hotel, a Cairo landmark, trashing the lobby before being forced out.
Protesters in many cities around the country have battled police, cut off roads and railway lines and besieged government offices and police stations. But the most dramatic fraying of state control has been in the three cities along the Suez Canal, particularly Port Said, at the canal’s Mediterranean end.
Violence exploded in Port Said on Saturday, leaving more than 40 dead since. The provincial governor has gone into hiding. Police are hunkered down. Tanks are in the streets by government buildings, but army troops have balked at enforcing Morsi’s curfew order. Residents in all three cities flouted the restrictions with huge marches in the streets Monday and Tuesday night.
“The independent state of Port Said,” proclaimed one protester’s sign as thousands marched through the city Tuesday in funeral processions for two of those killed in the unrest.
“Down, down with the rule of the Guide,” mourners chanted, referring to the Brotherhood’s top leader, known as the general guide, who opponents see as the real power behind Morsi’s government.
Mourners carried images of young men shot to death by police and accused Morsi of ordering the security forces to open fire. Many said the Islamist president should be put on trial like ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced to life in prison in connection with the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising against his rule, though he has been granted a retrial on appeal.
“God wreak vengeance on Morsi, who gave the orders to shoot at the protesters of Port Said, the city that fought three countries,” said Ayman Mohammed Abdel-Fatah, holding a picture of his slain relative, 22-year-old Mahmoud al-Tozo. He said el-Tozo was shot four times by police during protests outside Port Said’s prison.
“As long as the president’s hands are stained in blood, he must leave,” said Mohammed el-Assfouri, a lawyer, standing outside the Mariam mosque where mourners prayed for the dead.
Egypt’s unrest began Thursday and accelerated the following day when clashes erupted nationwide amid protests by the opposition marking the two-year anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled Mubarak. Port Said’s violence was touched off Saturday when a court issued death sentences against 21 people — mostly local soccer fans — over a bloody soccer riot in the city a year ago. Youths infuriated by the verdicts marched in the streets and clashed with police at a police station and the prison.
The verdicts were seen by residents as unfairly targeting Port Said. They also tapped into a vein of resentment in a city of 600,000 that prides itself as a national symbol of resistance after being on the front lines of multiple wars with Israel since 1956.
Many are convinced Morsi and the Brotherhood are trying to sideline the city because of a tradition of defying authority. They were further outraged when Morsi went on TV Sunday night and declared the state of emergency and curfew in Port Said, Suez and Ismailiya. Wagging his finger and shouting, Morsi supported the actions of police in confronting the protesters and warned of stronger measures if calm is not restored.
Mourners on Tuesday spoke of police on rooftops and roving in armored vehicles firing wildly during the weekend mayhem around the police station and prison in the city’s al-Arab district, hitting bystanders blocks away. On Sunday, a funeral of some of those killed came under fire — residents blame police — causing panic as mourners dropped some of the bodies they were carrying on the ground.
Ayman el-Sherbini said his 23-year-old brother Osama was walking in the al-Arab district on the way to buy food when a bullet hit him in the face, killing him. El-Sherbini, who wore the beard of a conservative Muslim, blamed Morsi and said his Islamist leadership had brought shame on religious people. “Now people spit in the face of anyone with a beard because of Morsi,” he said.
Women in face veils screamed anti-Morsi slogans in the funeral march. One woman, Faten el-Tahan, a government worker in a conservative Muslim headscarf, said she wished her “hands were cut off” the day she voted for Morsi in last year’s presidential election.
“My children told me not to vote for him,” she said. “I thought he was a faithful man who knows God. But he turned out to be not faithful and he doesn’t know God. I made a big mistake.”
The city now feels under siege. Shops are closed. Fearing the violence, trucks have stopped bringing in produce. Drivers refused to bring in oxygen supplies for a private hospital after their truck came under fire by unknown assailants, a worker at the hospital said. The city is awash with weapons and known criminals are seen on motorcycles brandishing automatic weapons.
Seaside hotels are totally empty during a mid-year school holiday when normally they are full of Egyptian tourists. Soot, shattered glass and burnt furniture are scattered outside police and army clubs which are located in front of the cemetery where slain protesters were buried and which were attacked by protesters.
Tuesday evening, Morsi’s office issued a statement saying the curfew and state of emergency could be lifted or shortened if the security situation improves, apparently trying to ease the anger.
Throughout the crisis, presidential officials and the Brotherhood have depicted the unrest as caused by thugs and supporters of Mubarak’s regime — and they have suggested that the political opposition is using the turmoil to overturn the results of elections that Islamists have repeatedly won the past year, bringing them to power.
The opposition contends the crisis is caused by Brotherhood attempts to monopolize power and can only be resolved if it makes major concessions to loosen its grip, including forming a national unity government and rewriting contentious parts of the Islamist-backed constitution.
The Brotherhood has dismissed those demands, and Morsi has instead invited the opposition to join a broad dialogue conference. The opposition has refused it as mere window dressing.
The army chief’s comments suggested the military’s impatience with politicians’ power struggles.
“The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations,” el-Sissi said, speaking to military cadets in comments posted on the armed forces’ Facebook page.
He also spoke of a “realistic threat” facing the nation from its mounting political, economic and social problems.
El-Sissi was appointed by Morsi as military chief and defense minister last autumn when the president sidelined the armed forces’ top brass, who had ruled the country for nearly 17 months following Mubarak’s fall.
El-Sissi is widely believed to be against direct rule by the generals, seeing it as damaging to the armed forces’ reputation. Throughout Morsi’s 7-month-old administration, he and the Islamist leadership appear to have reached an understanding on working together.
There was an earlier instance when el-Sissi appeared to feel compelled to intervene in politics, when he invited politicians to an informal gathering to ease tensions amid protests and clashes in November and December. The gathering was called off and some Brotherhood officials later suggested they felt el-Sissi had overstepped his bounds.
His comments Tuesday raise the question of how strongly the armed forces will support Morsi if no resolution is found.
In Port Said, many residents said Morsi and the Brotherhood had shown they were not qualified to govern.
“Port Said has fallen from Morsi’s grip,” Ibrahim Nasr, an activist, said. “The calls for independence are a message to Morsi to forget about the Canal cities.”