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Egypt's Port Said now a pivotal test for President Mohamed Morsi

Morsi has deployed the army and imposed emergency law as the death toll rises in rioting. But neither the troops nor the curfew has quelled the rage.

January 28, 2013|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptians march in a funeral procession in Port Said, Egypt.
Egyptians march in a funeral procession in Port Said, Egypt. (Mohamed Rashed / Al Masry…)

PORT SAID, Egypt — This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt's storied cotton was exported around the globe.

Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers. But its fading splendor has been upset by riots and bloodshed that have turned Port Said into a pivotal test of President Mohamed Morsi's ability to calm a nationwide rebellion against his rule.

More than 40 people have died here and hundreds have been wounded in recent days. Broken glass, charred cars and bullet casings are scattered in the streets. Soldiers, bayonets flashing, guard government buildings, electrical grids and the sprawling port. Protesters chant and gunmen roam in a confusing atmosphere that highlights the disparate passions at play.

"Nobody is in control of the city now," said Sameh Abd Khalek, an accountant who on Sunday attended a funeral procession in which 33 wooden coffins, bobbing like small boats through a crowd of thousands, came under fire from police and unknown assailants. "I watched as all the bodies were buried."

Morsi has deployed the army and imposed curfews under emergency law in Port Said and two other strategic coastal cities, Suez and Ismailia. As they endured labor strikes, troubled economies and social injustice, they seethed under the corrupt rule of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak. That has only intensified since Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in June.

But neither the troops nor the curfew has quelled the rage in this city of 600,000. Demonstrators clashed with security forces here for a fifth successive day Monday; at night, soldiers did not immediately intervene as thousands of protesters defied the curfew. The government also faced rioters in other cities, including Cairo, where a bystander was shot and killed and young men hurled rocks and firebombs, blocking a central bridge over the Nile.

There appeared little prospect for a political solution to the widening crisis. The main opposition, which claims Morsi has turned autocratic in his determination to advance a religious agenda, has rejected the president's calls for a national dialogue. Activists in cities across the nation had swelled into the streets by early Tuesday in solidarity with Suez, Ismailia and Port Said.

A politically left-leaning hub suspicious of Islamists and nursing a sense of detachment from the rest of the country, Port Said is accustomed to tumult. It was the battleground in Egypt's 1956 war against France, Britain and Israel to nationalize the Suez Canal. The city, along with Suez and Ismailia, was later on Egypt's front line during the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula.

"Port Said is legendary for its resistance," said Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo. "It has an active labor movement and a proud history of seeing things differently."

The latest spasm of chaos gripped the town Friday, when protesters marched on the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Mubarak. Thirty-three civilians and two police officers were killed in clashes Saturday after a court sentenced 21 soccer fans to death for killing rivals in a stadium riot last year. On Sunday, seven mourners died when the funeral procession was attacked.

Many here believe the soccer verdicts unfairly tainted the city. They claim security forces linked to Mubarak loyalists instigated the melee to disrupt Egypt's transition. The government in Cairo is reviled these days even by the besieged local police, who on Sunday barred Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim from funerals for two slain officers. He was blamed for not allowing the Port Said force to use live ammunition to repel rioters.

Islam Ezz Deen bore the wounds of the violence. He walked stiffly into a cafe on a near-deserted street of shuttered shops and men peering down from balconies. The static of TV news drifted from windows, mixing in strange cadences with the call to prayer and the whine of motor scooters.

"I was shot in the leg. My uncle was shot in the chest. He died," said Deen. "Morsi should come here and die in place of the people we lost. He's running the country. He should be responsible for any drop of blood spilled in Egypt."

He rubbed a hand through his thin beard, shifted in his seat.

"This city is slowly being executed and no one is paying attention," he said. "When one person dies in Cairo, the media and the government are all over it. But nobody from the government has said anything about Port Said."

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