Egyptian security forces clashed yesterday with protesters for a fifth day as the main opposition leaders snubbed a call for dialogue by President Mohamed Mursi.
The violence came hours after Mursi instituted a state of emergency in three restive provinces and said transgressors would be dealt with firmly. Protests were held to mark the anniversary of the bloodiest day in the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. At least one person was killed, adding to a death toll of about 50 since Jan. 25.
Demonstrators in the cities of Suez, Ismailiya and Port Said defied a nighttime curfew, with crowds chanting anti-Mursi and anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans, according to Ahram Online. Amnesty International, in a report yesterday, said Egyptian security forces used “unnecessary lethal force” during weekend clashes with demonstrators.
Earlier, opposition leaders including Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amre Moussa said they wouldn’t agree to talks until Mursi meets their demands including accepting responsibility for the bloodshed. They also want him to set up a unity government and a balanced committee to amend the constitution.
“We will not let down this great people by attending a dialogue that we know will have a dead-end,” ElBaradei said at a news briefing in Cairo. Ayman Nour, an opposition leader who ran against Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and was subsequently jailed, said the rejection of dialogue was irresponsible.
Mursi’s critics say he has reneged on pledges, is intent solely on cementing Islamist rule and has failed to raise the nation’s living standards. The Egyptian pound has fallen 7 percent in the past month, and the latest clashes undermine the prospect of political stability that would help revive the economy.
In Washington, Victoria Nuland, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, urged all sides “to work together through dialogue” to resolve issues, and she called on the government to respect citizens’ rights.
“We are watching how the emergency law put in place will be applied, given the very sensitive history of this in Egypt,” she told reporters at the State Department. “What’s most important is that the Egyptian government respect the rights of all Egyptians to due process going forward.”
President Barack Obama’s administration is talking with lawmakers about providing the $450 million in economic support promised to Egypt last year, Nuland said.
“That money remains on hold, and we are continuing to work with the Congress to get it released,” she said.
Amid the crackdown by Mursi’s government and the prospect of bigger U.S. budget cuts, it’s becoming harder for members of Congress to justify sustained support for Egypt, which costs American taxpayers $1.5 billion a year in aid, with $1.3 billion of it for the military.
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees spending on international operations, created the current conditions on military aid to Egypt that call for demonstrated democratic progress.
“Egypt’s transition to democracy is important to stability in the region,” Leahy said by e-mail. “We have a strong connection to the Egyptian people and empathy for their aspirations for their country, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the case for assistance to the Egyptian government.”
The latest wave of violence began with protests marking the revolution’s second anniversary, and was exacerbated when a court sentenced soccer fans from Port Said to death for their role in violence last year.
Almost 40 people have been killed in Port Said, one of the three provinces now under emergency rule, in clashes triggered by the ruling. A second mass funeral in two days was taking place there yesterday, while in Cairo police and protesters battled with tear gas and rocks.
Yesterday, the upper house of parliament, which holds temporary legislative powers, approved Mursi’s decision to declare a state of emergency in Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez, according to the state-run Middle East News Agency.
The emergency rule, which will last 30 days, includes a nighttime curfew. A police vehicle was set on fire last night and 11 officers were wounded, MENA reported.
The crackdown recalls measures taken by Mubarak in the last days of his rule, and some of the slogans protesters used against him in 2011 are now being directed at Mursi. At the Port Said funeral, marchers chanted “The people want the fall of the regime,” and “Sleep and rest, martyrs, and we will continue the struggle.”
The latest tensions undermine hopes of a turnaround in the economy, which has been growing at the slowest pace in two decades since Mubarak’s ouster. The central bank has spent about 60 percent of its foreign reserves since the start of 2011. Its announcement of daily dollar auctions on Dec. 30, a move aimed at shielding reserves by limiting local banks’ access to foreign currency, triggered the pound’s slump.
The government, after twice delaying a request for an International Monetary Fund loan, is now again negotiating for $4.8 billion in funding.
In addition to Mursi’s measures, the upper house of parliament also approved a draft law submitted by the Cabinet giving the military temporary authority to help “preserve security and protect vital establishments,” including arrest powers, MENA reported. A similar measure initiated by the then-ruling army was condemned in June by Islamists and others.
The latest unrest shows the security vacuum that has emerged since the 2011 revolution, as Egyptians see “the erosion of the authorities of the central government,” Yasser el-Shimy, a Mideast analyst with the International Crisis Group, said by telephone.
If security forces are able to restore order with the measures that Mursi announced, it could boost his popularity, el-Shimy said. Failure, however, may only “serve to escalate the turmoil,” he said.
Mursi called the violence of the past few days the “ugly face of a counter-revolution,” and stressed he was not backtracking on a commitment to a democratic Egypt.
The human-rights group Amnesty International said its researchers documented the use of “excessive force” by security personnel, who it said violated Egyptian law limiting the use of firearms by police.
“The recourse to violence by some protesters does not give a blank check to the police to shoot and beat protesters,” the group said. “All this comes against the backdrop of decades in which the security forces have operated with impunity -– in some cases getting away with murder.”
In Port Said, 27-year-old Mohamed el-Sayed, who was wounded in the clashes, predicted that the president’s security crackdown would “lead to a massacre.”
“Someone like me, who was wounded, will not go home until I get back my rights,” he said.