Egypt’s defense chief warned that political unrest could bring about the “collapse” of the state, increasing pressure on President Mohamed Mursi after almost a week of street battles in which dozens of Egyptians have died.
Protesters in the Suez Canal province of Port Said -- one of three areas the president has placed under emergency rule -- vowed a second night of defiance of the overnight curfew. The unrest built on a refusal by Mursi’s secular opponents to join in talks to ease the situation.
The conflict between the political forces “and their disagreement on running the country may lead to the collapse of the state,” Defense Minister Abdelfatah Al-Seesi was quoted as saying in a statement posted on the armed forces’ official Facebook page. The political instability and economic challenges “represent a real threat to Egypt’s security.”
The unrest has gained momentum since Jan. 25, the second anniversary of the start of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, leaving at least 50 people dead in the past week. It is undermining efforts to restore political order and revive an economy still struggling to recover. The pound has slid 7 percent in the past month, and the government is seeking a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
White House spokesman Jay Carney today repeated concern about the situation and urged Egyptians “across the political spectrum” to resolve their differences peacefully.
Mursi’s efforts to quell unrest and advance Egypt’s transition, including decrees that temporarily widened his powers and support for a constitution drawn up largely by Islamists and passed in a referendum last month, have only fueled the discontent.
The opposition, which is largely secular and led by youth activists, says Mursi has reneged on campaign pledges and is intent solely on cementing Islamist rule at the expense of the nation’s interests.
A day after the National Salvation Front, an alliance of opposition groups, boycotted a national dialogue called by Mursi, the president appeared to offer a compromise.
The parties involved in last night’s talks -- mostly Islamists in lock-step with Mursi -- agreed to set up a 10-member committee to review articles in the charter that have drawn criticism from secularists and rights advocates. Those amendments would then be passed to the parliament, after expected elections later this year, Mursi spokesman Yasser Ali said in a news conference. The groups were invited to another round of talks next week, he said.
The president also said the emergency measures declared on Jan. 27, while necessary, weren’t ones he embraced.
“No reasonable person would think this was directed against our people in the three canal cities that have always had a leading role in the history of the Egyptian national struggle,” Ali quoted Mursi as saying. The measures would be reviewed next week and possibly lifted if the security situation permits, he said.
The opposition has demanded Mursi accept responsibility for the latest deaths and set up a national unity government and a balanced committee to amend the constitution.
The parties involved in the meeting yesterday agreed it would be difficult to form such a unity government ahead of the parliamentary vote, Pakinam El-Sharkawy, one of Mursi’s presidential advisers, told reporters.
The National Salvation Front “takes its cues from the street activists, not the other way around,” Hani Sabra, a Middle East analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, said in an e-mail.
Opposition leaders such as Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei “fear that meeting with Mursi would compromise their support at the street level,” he said. “The rift in Egyptian politics is likely to continue to widen, and the likelihood of more explosive violence has increased.”
The army, which ran the country between Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 and Mursi’s election in June last year, has said it is taking no sides and is interested only in safeguarding the nation. It didn’t intervene to enforce the curfew, although Al-Seesi, the defense minister, reaffirmed in his statement that the armed forces faced a “serious predicament” in not interfering in the right to peaceful protest and protecting state installations.
Al-Seesi assumed his current post after Mursi sidelined Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, ending a bitter power struggle with the man who headed the ruling military council after his former boss was ousted.
In Port Said overnight, thousands chanted “Leave, leave,” drawing on the vernacular of the 2011 uprising in rallying against Mursi, who they blame for the deaths there. Some hoisted what they called an “independence” flag. The military, which has been deployed in the city as well as in Suez, didn’t intervene.
The fatalities in Port Said came after death sentences were handed down against 21 people in connection with last year’s fatal stadium riot in the city that left more than 70 dead.
In unveiling the 30-day emergency measures, Mursi warned that attacks on civilians and state installations would be dealt with firmly. Even so, the demonstrations targeted local government buildings and police stations in several Nile Delta towns, the south and in the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest.
Unrest also flared in Cairo today as about a dozen people ransacked a Nile-front five-star hotel that overlooks the scene of much of the fighting. Crowds later swelled on the Qasr El-Nil bridge, where the clashes of the past days have been concentrated.
One person was killed in the capital yesterday. Two others died in Port Said and more than 240 were injured nationwide in skirmishes with security forces, the Health Ministry said in a statement.