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'Outbreak of Rage' and Egypt on the Brink

by Sharif Abdel Kouddous

Reporting from Port Said, Egypt, Democracy Now! correspondent and frequent Nation contributor Sharif Abdel Kouddous explains why the young Egyptian government could be on the brink of collapse:

CAIRO, Egypt – The second anniversary of Egypt's revolution has been marked by rocks, firebombs, tear gas and bullets. More than fifty people have been killed and over a thousand wounded across the country. The army has been granted arrest powers, and military troops have been deployed to the three cities where President Mohamed Morsi has declared a state of emergency and ordered a curfew.

This outbreak of rage has laid bare the precarious state of a country plagued by a disfigured transition process, a lingering sense of injustice and the repeated failures of an entire political class that has forsaken a host of popular grievances in its scuffle for power.

Much of the vitriol has been directed toward Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Using a highly contentious decree that granted him near-dictatorial powers, Morsi forced a controversial constitution through a referendum process last month. The move sparked mass protests and deadly clashes and left a deep national rift in its wake. It also bolstered fears of the "Brotherhood-ization" of the state, namely that the group was asserting control over the regime left behind by Hosni Mubarak rather than reforming state institutions.

In the weeks since, the economy has edged closer to the precipice with the Egyptian pound plummeting to record lows against the US dollar causing a rise in the price of staple goods like sugar, rice and cooking oil and exacerbating the economic burdens of the poor.

In this charged environment, it didn't take long for the protests on January 25 commemorating the revolution to turn violent; clashes between demonstrators and security forces erupted in cities across the country as protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails and police fired tear gas, birdshot and live ammunition, leaving at least eleven dead.

The mostly young men and boys doing the fighting include "Black Bloc" protesters in balaclavas, a newly-formed, apparently loosely organized group that has nonetheless quickly gained notoriety in the media.

The port city of Suez saw the anniversary's deadliest confrontations with up to nine people killed. A forensics report later found the victims were shot by live ammunition at close range and, in some cases, from behind. The next day, protesters stormed three police stations in Suez and freed prisoners as the police fled the area. The army was eventually deployed in an attempt to secure the city.

Morsi stayed off the airwaves and did not make any statement until after 1am, when he posted a much-derided message on his Twitter account urging "citizens to adhere to the values of the revolution, express opinions freely and peacefully and renounce violence."

Yet the violence of the anniversary protests was dwarfed by what took place in the city of Port Said the next day when thirty-two people were killed and hundreds wounded in fierce clashes with security forces.

A northern coastal city on the Suez Canal, Port Said had been the site of the single bloodiest incident in Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, a soccer match on February 1, 2012, between Port Said's Masry Club and Cairo's Ahly Club. As police forces looked on, Masry fans stormed the field and attacked their vastly outnumbered rivals. Seventy-two people, mostly Ahly fans, were killed in the violence, most of them crushed to death in a stampede. Many Ahly fans felt they were victims of a conspiracy by security forces to punish them for their instrumental role in battling police on the street over the course of the revolution.

A total of seventy-three people were put on trial over the incident, including Masry fans, senior police officers and club officials. For the past year, hardcore Ahly fans—known as Ultras—have staged protests, marches and street actions to call for justice in the case, threatening "chaos" with an unsatisfactory verdict.

As the scheduled January 26 ruling approached, the Ultras escalated their acts of civil disobedience, halting traffic on a major overpass in Cairo and taking the unprecedented step of blocking the underground metro for several hours.

In a televised session on Saturday, the judge sentenced twenty-one defendants to death—all of them Masry fans—and postponed the verdict for the remaining fifty-one defendants to March 9. The death sentences against the civilians came from the same court system that has yet to jail a single security official for the death of more than 800 protesters during the 2011 uprising.

Yet inside the courtroom, the families of those killed erupted in joy, as did thousands of Ultras who has gathered outside their club headquarters in Cairo. The notion that political pressure secured the verdict rather than any form of due process was widespread, and they greeted the extremely harsh sentence as a vindication of their efforts. "Unfortunately this is the way the country works now," said Sayed, a 22 year-old Ultras member. "You make your voice heard and you get results."

The reaction in Port Said was very different: residents felt they had been unfairly scapegoated to placate the Ahly Ultras. A complete news blackout on the courts proceedings did little to help the speculation.

As the verdict was announced, the screams and wails of mothers and family members can be heard rising in the air in video footage from the city. A group of angry relatives tried to storm the Port Said's main prison to free the defendants, killing two policemen. Security forces responded by opening fire with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas, killing at least thirty people and wounding hundreds more. The army was sent in to secure government buildings.

The next day, mourners chanted “Morsi is God's enemy” during a mass funeral which came under fire with tear gas and live ammunition from police officers crouching on rooftops, killing seven more and bringing the Port Said death toll to thirty-nine. The managing editor of the Egypt Independent, Lina Attalah, summed up the cycle of violence in a tweet: "7 dead while mourning 30 dead in clashes after 21 were sentenced to death for killing 72."

Meanwhile, protests continued to rage in the capital, spilling out from Tahrir to the surrounding streets and bridges, disrupting traffic and sending clouds of toxic tear gas wafting across downtown Cairo. Protests also continued in Alexandria, Mahalla and elsewhere.

The president's supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood blamed the violent unrest on paid thugs, the media and mysterious "hidden hands" that wanted to destroy the country. An online posting by the Brotherhood pointed to the Black Bloc and, in a continued pattern of fomenting sectarian tensions, claimed the group was headed by a Christian militia leader.

Meanwhile, the reaction by the National Salvation Front, a loose alliance of non-Islamist opposition groups, was equally woeful. The coalition said it would boycott upcoming parliamentary elections unless a list of demands were met, including forming a "national salvation government" and suspending the constitution. The move was viewed as politically opportunistic and being far removed from the mayhem unfolding in the street.

As the violence continued unabated for the fourth straight day, Morsi finally took to the airwaves in a fiery address broadcast on state television. He blamed the violence on the "counter revolution" and called on citizens to respect court rulings, a staggering claim by a president who issued a decree two months earlier that placed him beyond judicial reach and whose group had vilified the judiciary as a politicized remnant of the former regime and had staged protests outside the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Morsi then declared a 30-day state of emergency in Suez, Port Said and Ismailia, the three Suez Canal provinces that had witnessed the most violence, and imposed a curfew from 9pm to 6am. One of the most despised tools of repression during Mubarak's 30-year reign, the state of emergency suspends the ordinary judicial process and most civil rights while granting the president and the police extraordinary powers. “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," Morsi said.

Within moments of the announcement, several hundred protested in the restive cities and activists pledged to defy the curfew the next day. Meanwhile, Egypt's cabinet approved a draft law that was swiftly ratified by the Shura Council to allow Morsi to deploy the armed forces on the streets and grant them judicial powers to "safeguard state institutions against saboteurs and restore security."

The president also called for a national dialogue at the presidential palace with political supporters and opponents the following evening yet the National Salvation Front spurned the invitation with Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading member of the coalition, telling a news conference the next day the call to talks was "cosmetic and not substantive."

Morsi announced the state of emergency would begin on January 28, a date that marks the two year anniversary of the "Day of Rage," when the army was first deployed to the streets after tens of thousands of Egyptians overwhelmed the police and security forces in what was arguably the most decisive day of the revolution yet. That day, the legitimacy and authority of the state headed by Hosni Mubarak was severely crippled. Two years later, the legitimacy of the Egyptian state appears to be eroding even further under an elected president.