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Fear and desperation grip Egypt port city of Suez

Egyptian protests have been unusually bloody in Suez, where men and boys arm themselves with makeshift weapons and wait for what is to come. They fear Mubarak's police, but fear even more that he may stay in power.

February 02, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • In a poor section of the city of Suez, young Egyptians take up arms to protect their neighborhood.
In a poor section of the city of Suez, young Egyptians take up arms to protect… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Suez, Egypt — Abdel Ibrahim waited in the alley with an ax.

Boys gathered around him with clubs and knives. His brother held a gun made of lead pipe and a trigger. Building fires smoldered and the dead had been buried, but Ibrahim's small, ragged army suggested new graves may soon be dug.

There were no police officers in sight. Their headquarters had been burned. So had the fire department. In this port city of salt air and factory smoke, where resentment over President Hosni Mubarak has been ingrained over decades, the government is the enemy.

"This cleaver's not enough to protect us from the police," said Ibrahim's brother, Yusef. "That's why I invented this gun."

The protests sweeping Egypt have been particularly bloody in Suez. At least 30 people have been killed here. Years of repressed hatred over police corruption, beatings and intimidation have turned the city into a storm, gusting, turning strangely quiet and gusting again. Many of the rich have fled, the workers have taken to the streets, the poor hurry to market before curfew.

"Mubarak is a murderer," reads a wall of graffiti.

"We will not forget the martyrs of the revolution."

Like much of the country, Suez has become a place of eerie twilights and tense mornings. Small fires burn at vigilante roadblocks guarded by men with sticks and swords and cutlery pulled from kitchen drawers. Boys stand watch too, their slender bodies tilted by the weight of their lead pipes. The congenial Egyptian spirit, which has sustained this nation for centuries, is under strain from within.

The protests and fervor against Mubarak rise, but beyond the echoes of rebellion, uncertainty and desperation pervade. Looters prowl. Gas stations remain closed. Bread lines grow. Paychecks never arrive. This country has long been chaotic, but, through daily ingenuity and cleverness, it worked.

Now, something has changed.

Egyptians seem a family adrift. Anger against the government has bonded them, and Mubarak's patriarchal hold, which many thought unbreakable, has been shattered. But there is deep worry about what will come next. And there is talk that if the president is not immediately toppled, the retribution by the police will be severe.

"The government kept us poor. We didn't talk about politics because we were trying too hard to survive," said Kamal Banna, a chemical factory worker on strike in Suez. "Then we started talking about politics and they started killing us. There's no way back for us now. Mubarak has to leave. If the police come back, they'll want revenge."

Banna looked away for a moment. When the mass demonstrations began last week, he said, he saw police open fire on a crowd, killing three people in the street.

"The protests will never stop," he said, "but they may fade. It's the fear. Even with all these people dead, we still haven't accomplished the main thing. Mubarak remains in power."

Around the corner, past the burned fire station, a mob chased a man. They grabbed him and hauled him to an army tank. They accused him of stealing a cellphone. Soldiers jumped down to protect the man. The still-popular Egyptian army, which filled the vacuum since police retreated last week, has become the rule of law.

"He's a thief!" the crowd yelled.

"I was just passing by," said the man.

An army commander listened to both sides. He let the man go.

People in the mob grumbled and then dispersed, while around the corner, women dressed in sequins and lame, determined that life should go on through the tumult, slipped into a restaurant for a wedding reception. On the other side of the street, an anti-Mubarak demonstration began as a bulldozer pushed a charred police car from the road.

"People will keep rebelling here," said Seood Omar, a labor leader dressed in a blazer. "This was a city that stood against the Israelis in 1973. We don't back down. We're more revolutionary and courageous than much of the country. This was even so under British occupation."

Many of the factories along the sea have been shuttered. Soldiers with bayonets stood guard over oil refineries. Tankers and freighters lay low in the Gulf of Suez, aloof to the smoke and chants in the streets, awaiting passage through the Suez Canal.

Abdou Afifi and Ahmed Antar heard gunshots and started their neighborhood patrol early. Weapons looted from police stations have circulated through the city. Some families have bought guns from drug dealers. The other night, shots rang out from a stolen ambulance.

"My biggest fear, though, is that Mubarak will stay in power," Antar said.

He pointed to a skyline of smokestacks. There should be a job for him there, but he and Afifi, both standing in sandals near an ash pile, said that is not how Suez works. National industries are controlled by the ruling party, and the private ones have cut thousands of jobs.

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