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Morsi cracks down in Egypt

The president invokes emergency powers in three cities as death toll rises in rioting.

January 28, 2013|Jeffrey Fleishman and Reem Abdellatif
  • An Egyptian protester throws a tear gas canister back at riot police, not seen, during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo.
An Egyptian protester throws a tear gas canister back at riot police, not… (Khalil Hamra / Associated…)

PORT SAID, EGYPT — President Mohamed Morsi invoked emergency powers in three cities Sunday night to stem riots that have killed nearly 50 people and raised questions over whether his Islamist-backed government can secure order amid sharpening political turmoil.

In a nationally televised address, Morsi shook his finger at the camera and warned, "Those who try to scare citizens, use weapons, block roads, throw rocks at the innocent, those who attempt to jeopardize the safety and security of this nation, we must deal with them with all force and firmness."

He added that "everyone must know that state institutions in Egypt

The emergency powers impose curfews for 30 days in the country's most troubled cities: Ismailia, Port Said and Suez. The army deployed to the towns over the weekend after rioting and looting threatened businesses, public institutions and ports near the Suez Canal. But violence continued as gunmen roamed streets of shuttered shops and blowing garbage.

Seven people were killed and more than 600 were injured in Port Said on Sunday when police and unknown gunmen opened fire on a funeral procession for those who died in violence a day earlier. Clashes also erupted again in Cairo, where protesters burned tires and blocked the 6th of October Bridge near a stretch of tourist hotels.

The latest wave of unrest began Friday on the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The violence intensified Saturday, when 21 soccer fans were sentenced to death in Port Said for killing rival fans in a riot last year.

Their relatives attempted to storm the prison, clashing with police. At least 33 people died.

Bitterness at Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party over the nation's deteriorating security and economic chaos was resonant.

"This country has been in a worsening state for 10 years. We had hoped Morsi's new government would improve things," said Sameh Abd Khalek, an accountant in Port Said. "Morsi has not responded to our needs. I don't know what the solution is. But people just don't curse the police anymore, they're cursing Morsi too."

Mourners along the funeral procession chanted, "Down, down Morsi, down, down the regime that killed and tortured us!"

The violence has raised concerns over whether the government can impose order and calm political passions before the economy collapses. The police, once the symbol of Mubarak's oppression, have been accused of using excessive force and are increasingly the target of public rage. The problem has been compounded by the Brotherhood's deep mistrust of the Interior Ministry.

The military has been deployed to protect factories, ports and government institutions in Suez and Port Said, where clashes between protesters and police have been the most intense. The army has so far stood by Morsi, but many Egyptians would support its returning to power, despite its much-criticized 18-month rule before Morsi took office in June.

Human rights groups, however, condemned the army for abuse, torture and political repression during its rule. Morsi's decision to enact limited emergency measures raised fears among activists that the country would again slide toward martial law.

Soldiers in Port Said on Sunday mainly guarded buildings, manned roadblocks and stayed behind barbed wire.

The armed forces issued a statement saying soldiers "will not fire one bullet toward any honorable Egyptian and will not confront any peaceful demonstrations or strikes."

The intensity of violence has startled the country. Young men and boys have for months hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces. But the tenor has been changed by the increase in weapons, including machine guns, which have been smuggled from neighboring Libya.

Morsi blamed much of the bloodshed on thugs terrorizing citizens. "This behavior has nothing to do with the revolution. It goes against the revolution," he said. "It is condemned by all Egyptians."

The president called on opposition parties to join in a political dialogue to end the chaos ahead of parliamentary elections expected to be held in the spring. But the main opposition groups have called for a massive rally Monday.

They have threatened to boycott the elections and have called for disbanding Morsi's Cabinet and voiding the new Islamist-backed constitution.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Abdellatif is a special correspondent.

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