Protesters throw stones during clashes with riot police near Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Wednesday. (AFP)
Cairo, Jan. 30: A prominent Egyptian Opposition leader called on President Mohamed Mursi today to hold a national dialogue, a day after the nation’s top general warned that the state itself was in danger of collapse because of violence verging on anarchy in three Suez Canal cities.
Yesterday, thousands of residents poured into the streets of the three cities, protesting a 9pm curfew with another night of chants against Mursi and assaults on the police.
With Mursi himself in Berlin today for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel and potential investors, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN diplomat and coordinator of the secular Opposition, said on Twitter that “stopping the violence is the priority”.
He urged Mursi to start a “serious dialogue” and to bow to a demand for a “national salvation government” including members of the Opposition and a committee to institute constitutional reforms.
There was no immediate response from Mursi, whose concern about the chaos in his country was reflected in decisions, reported by Egyptian and French officials, to cancel a visit to Paris after his trip to Berlin and to shorten his stay in the German capital to just a few hours.
Yesterday, Mursi seemed powerless to halt the violence along the Suez Canal, a vital waterway. He had already granted the police extralegal powers to enforce the curfew and then called out the army as well. His allies in the Muslim Brotherhood and their Opposition also proved ineffectual in the face of the crisis, each retreating to their corners, pointing fingers of blame.
The general’s warning punctuated a rash of violent protests across the country that has dramatised the near-collapse of the government’s authority. With the city of Port Said proclaiming its nominal independence, protesters demanded the resignation of Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected President, while people across the country appeared convinced that taking to the streets in protests was the only means to get redress for their grievances.
Just five months after Egypt’s President assumed power from the military, the cascading crisis revealed the depth of the distrust for the central government left by decades of autocracy, two years of convoluted transition and his own acknowledged missteps in facing the Opposition.
With cities in open rebellion and the police unable to tame crowds, the very fabric of society appears to be coming undone.
The chaos has also for the first time touched pillars of the long-term health of Egypt’s economy, already teetering after two years of turbulence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
While a heavy deployment of military troops along the Suez Canal — a vital source of revenue — appeared to insulate it from the strife in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, the clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo spilled over for the first time into an armed assault on the historic Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, sending tremors of fear through the vital tourism sector.
With the stakes rising and no solution in sight, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the defence minister, warned Egypt’s new Islamist leaders and their opponents that “their disagreement on running the affairs of the country may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations”.
“Political, economic, social and security challenges” require united action “by all parties” to avoid “dire consequences that affect the steadiness and stability of the homeland,” Gen. Sisi said in an address to military cadets that was later relayed as a public statement from his spokesman.
And the acute polarisation of the civilian politics, he suggested, has now become a concern of the military because “to affect the stability of the state institutions is a dangerous matter that harms Egyptian national security”.
Coming just months after the military relinquished the power it seized at the ouster of Mubarak, Gen. Sisi’s rebuke to the civilian leaders inevitably raised the possibility that the generals might once again step into civilian politics.
There was no indication of an imminent coup.
Analysts familiar with Gen. Sisi’s thinking say that unlike his predecessors, he wants to avoid any political entanglements.
But the Egyptian military has prided itself on its dual military and political role since Col Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup more than six decades ago. And Gen. Sisi insisted yesterday that it would remain “the solid mass and the backbone upon which rest the Egyptian state’s pillars”.