CAIRO – Egypt’s president declared a state of emergency and curfew in three Suez Canal provinces hit hardest by a weekend wave of unrest that left more than 50 dead, using tactics of the ousted regime to get a grip on discontent over his Islamist policies and the slow pace of change.
Angry and almost screaming, Mohammed Morsi vowed in a televised address Sunday night that he would not hesitate to take even more action to stem the latest eruption of violence across much of the country. But at the same time, he sought to reassure Egyptians that his latest moves would not plunge the country back into authoritarianism.
“There is no going back on freedom, democracy and the supremacy of the law,” he said.
The worst violence this weekend was in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said, where seven people were killed Sunday, pushing the toll for two days of clashes to at least 44. The unrest was sparked Saturday by a court conviction and death sentence for 21 defendants involved in a mass soccer riot in the city’s main stadium on Feb. 1, 2012, that left 74 dead.
Most of those sentenced to death were local soccer fans from Port Said, deepening a sense of persecution that Port Said’s residents have felt since the stadium disaster, the worst soccer violence ever in Egypt.
At least another 11 died Friday elsewhere in the country during rallies marking the second anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Protesters used the occasion to renounce Morsi and his Islamic fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged as the country’s most dominant political force after Mubarak’s ouster.
The curfew and state of emergency, both in force for 30 days, affect the provinces of Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez. The curfew takes effect today from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day.
Morsi, in office since June, also invited the nation’s political forces to a dialogue starting today to resolve the country’s latest crisis. A statement issued later by his office said that among those invited were the country’s top reform leader, Nobel peace Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist politician who finished third in last year’s presidential race.
The three are leaders of the National Salvation Front, an umbrella for the main opposition parties.
Khaled Dawoud, the Front’s spokesman, said Morsi’s invitation was meaningless unless he clearly states what is on the agenda. That, he added, must include amending a disputed constitution hurriedly drafted by the president’s Islamist allies and rejected by the opposition.
He also faulted the president for not acknowledging his political responsibility for the latest bout of political violence.
“It is all too little too late,” he told the Associated Press.
In many ways, Morsi’s decree and his call for a dialogue betrayed his despair in the face of wave after wave of political unrest, violence and man-made disasters that, at times, made the country look like it was about to come unglued.
A relative unknown until his Muslim Brotherhood nominated him to run for president last year, Morsi is widely criticized for having offered no vision for the country’s future after nearly 30 years of dictatorship under Mubarak and no coherent policy to tackle seemingly endless problems, from a free falling economy and deeply entrenched social injustices to surging crime and chaos on the streets.
Reform of the judiciary and the police, hated under the old regime for brutality, are also key demands of Morsi’s critics.
Morsi did not say what he plans to do to stem the violence in other parts of the country outside those three provinces, but he did say he had instructed the police to deal “firmly and forcefully” with individuals attacking state institutions, using firearms to “terrorize” citizens or blocking roads and railway lines.
There were also clashes Sunday in Cairo and several cities in the Nile Delta region, including the industrial city of Mahallah.
Egypt’s current crisis is the second to hit the country since November, when Morsi issued decrees, since rescinded, that gave him nearly unlimited powers and placed him above any oversight, including by the judiciary.
The latest eruption of political violence has deepened the malaise as Morsi struggles to get a grip on enormous social and economic problems and the increasingly dangerous fault lines that divide this nation of 85 million.
In an ominous sign, a one-time jihadist group Sunday blamed the secular opposition for the violence and threatened to set up vigilante militias to defend the government it supports.
Addressing a news conference, Tareq el-Zomr of the once-jihadist Gamaa Islamiya, said:
“If security forces don’t achieve security, it will be the right of the Egyptian people and we at the forefront to set up popular committees to protect private and public property and counter the aggression on innocent citizens.”
His threat was accompanied by his charge that the opposition was responsible for the deadly violence of the past few days, setting the stage for possible bloody clashes between protesters and Islamist militiamen. The opposition denies the charge.
In Port Said Sunday, tens of thousands of mourners poured into the streets for a mass funeral for most of the 37 people who died on Saturday. They chanted slogans against Morsi.
“We are now dead against Morsi,” said Port Said activist Amira Alfy. “We will not rest now until he goes and we will not take part in the next parliamentary elections. Port Said has risen and will not allow even a semblance of normalcy to come back,” she said.
The violence flared only a month after a prolonged crisis – punctuated by deadly violence – over the new constitution. Ten died in that round of unrest and hundreds were injured.
In Port Said, mourners chanted “There is no God but Allah,” and “Morsi is God’s enemy” as the funeral procession made its way through the city after prayers for the dead at the city’s Mariam Mosque. Women clad in black led the chants, which were quickly picked up by the rest of the mourners.
There were no police or army troops in sight. But the funeral procession briefly halted after gunfire rang out. Security officials said the gunfire came from several mourners who opened fire at the Police Club next to the cemetery. Activists, however, said the gunfire first came from inside the army club, which is also close to the cemetery. Some of the mourners returned fire, which drew more shots as well as tear gas, according to witnesses. They, together with the officials, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation in the city on the Mediterranean at the northern tip of the Suez Canal.
A total of 630 people were injured, some of them with gunshot wounds, said Abdel-Rahman Farag, director of the city’s hospitals.
Also Sunday, army troops backed by armored vehicles staked out positions at key government facilities to protect state interests and try to restore order.
There was also a funeral in Cairo for two policemen killed in the Port Said violence a day earlier. Several policemen grieving for their colleagues heckled Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the force, when he arrived for their funeral, according to witnesses.
The angry officers screamed at the minister that he was only at the funeral for the TV cameras – a highly unusual show of dissent in Egypt, where the police force maintains military-like discipline.
Ibrahim hurriedly left and the funeral proceeded without him, a sign that the prestige of the state and its top executives were diminishing.
In Cairo, clashes broke out for the fourth straight day on Sunday, with protesters and police outside two landmark, Nile-side hotels near central Tahrir Square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising. Police fired tear gas while protesters pelted them with rocks.