PORT SAID, Egypt — Residents of this Mediterranean coastal city burying their dead from Egypt’s wave of political violence vented their fury at Egypt’s Islamist president and the Muslim Brotherhood on Tuesday, demanding his ouster and virtually declaring a revolt against his rule, as the head of the military warned Egypt may collapse under the weight of its turmoil.
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 a slain 22-year-old relative who he said 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.