A woman pours water in the eyes of a girl suffering from exposure to tear gas during clashes with riot police near Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Monday. (AFP)
Port Said (Egypt), Jan. 28: President Mohamed Mursi declared a state of emergency and a curfew in three major cities yesterday, as escalating violence on the streets threatened his government and Egypt’s democracy.
By imposing a one-month state of emergency in Suez, Ismailia and here in Port Said, where the police have lost all control, Mursi’s declaration chose to use one of the most despised weapons of former President Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy.
Under Mubarak-era laws left in effect by the country’s new Constitution, a state of emergency suspends the ordinary judicial process and most civil rights. It gives the President and the police extraordinary powers.
Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected President and a leader of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, took the step after four days of clashes in Cairo and in cities around the country between the police and protesters denouncing his government. Most of the protests were set off by the second anniversary of the popular revolt that ousted Mubarak, which fell on Friday.
Here in Port Said, the trouble started over death sentences that a court imposed on 21 local soccer fans for their role in a deadly riot. But after 30 people died in clashes on Saturday — most of them shot by the police — the protesters turned their ire on Mursi as well the court. Police officers crouching on the roofs of their stations fired tear gas and live ammunition into attacking mobs, and hospital officials said that yesterday at least seven more people died.
Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Port Said yesterday demanding independence from the rest of Egypt. “The people want the state of Port Said,” they chanted in anger at Cairo.
The emergency declaration covers the three cities and their surrounding provinces, all on the economically vital Suez Canal. Mursi announced the emergency measures in a stern, finger-waving speech on state television last evening. He said he was acting “to stop the blood bath” and called the violence in the streets “the counterrevolution itself”.
“There is no room for hesitation, so that everybody knows the institution of the state is capable of protecting the citizens,” he said. “If I see that the homeland and its children are in danger, I will be forced to do more than that. For the sake of Egypt, I will.”
Mursi’s resort to the authoritarian measures of his predecessor appeared to reflect mounting doubts about the viability of Egypt’s central government. After decades of corruption, cronyism and brutality under Mubarak, Egyptians have struggled to adjust to resolving their differences — whether over matters of political ideology or crime and punishment — through peaceful democratic channels.
“Why are we unable to sort out these disputes?” asked Moattaz Abdel-Fattah, a political scientist and academic who was a member of the assembly that drafted Egypt’s new Constitution. “How many times are we going to return to the state of Egyptians killing Egyptians?”