By Abigail Hauslohner / WashingtonPost.com
PORT SAID, Egypt — The residents of this Mediterranean coastal city say their conflict with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi started with a harsh court verdict. (On Saturday, a court convicted and sentenced 21 defendants to death for their roles in a soccer riot in a Port Said stadium on Feb. 1, 2012, that left 74 people dead.)
Three days and 43 bodies later, the air around Port Said’s main cemetery still tinged by the stench of death, the conflict has spiraled into something much larger.
Many of the men and women who chanted for Morsi’s execution in the tense and battle-scarred streets of Port Said on Monday (Jan. 28) said that in last summer’s presidential election, they actually voted for the man.
That the city turned so vehemently against him with a single court verdict underscores Morsi’s increasing vulnerability, and suggests that others could just as easily shift their favor — potentially altering the nature of Egypt’s political divide and bringing new threats to the country’s already tenuous stability and rapidly sinking economy.
In all, at least 54 people were killed and hundreds injured across the country in four days of fighting between opposition protesters and government security forces. The clashes were set off by marches on Friday to mark the two-year anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, when crowds of youth — rallied by Morsi’s predominantly liberal and secularist opposition — squared off against police in battles of rocks, molotov cocktails, and tear gas in Cairo, Suez, and other major cities.
In Port Said, the serious clashes broke out the following day, after a judge issued death sentences for 21 locals for their involvement in a soccer riot last year. But as Port Said’s death toll rapidly climbed, Egypt’s political opposition, which until last week cut predominantly along religious and class lines, began to broaden.
On Monday the National Salvation Front, a loose coalition of opposition leaders, rejected Morsi’s call to a national dialogue. Leftist leader Hamdeen Sabbahi said the alliance would agree to meet only if Morsi forms a national unity government and begins to amend Egypt’s contentious new constitution, which was approved in a national referendum last month. The front called for more nationwide protests on Friday.
The stakes are high. Egyptian Army Chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi warned Tuesday of the “collapse of the state” if the crisis continues.
“The continuation of this struggle between the different political forces and their disagreements around the administration of the country could lead to the collapse of the state, and threatens the future of coming generations,” al-Sissi told military academy cadets, according to remarks posted on the armed forces’ Facebook page.
A grim cycle
Morsi’s government and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood have struggled to control the security crisis. Morsi declared a 30-day state of emergency and a nighttime curfew for Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia on Sunday, a day after deploying troops to Port Said and Suez.
But many Egyptians in the emergency zone, spread along Egypt’s most crucial holding, the Suez Canal, said the moves only made them angrier. Thousands took to the streets of Port Said on Monday, beneath the whipping noise of circling helicopters, to bury their dead and defy the curfew.