PORT SAID, Egypt — On
Jan. 28, thousands of Port Said residents broke the first night of President Mohamed
Morsy's curfew with a raucous march that wound past the faded grandeur of the
seafront's old buildings.
Families watched from
balconies above the rain-soaked streets. They tossed bananas and lowered
buckets of water by rope. Soldiers watched idly and chatted with protesters
beside their armored personnel carriers. Marchers directed their chants at Morsy:
"The curfew -- up your mother's!"
What began as a
soccer rivalry between Cairo and this city of 600,000 at the mouth of the Suez
Canal sparked a tragic stadium riot in February 2012 and has now grown into a
miniature insurrection. After a court's decision to hand down 21 death
sentences against Port Said soccer supporters for their role in the riot,
outraged men allegedly rushed toward the prison and tried to shoot the inmates out,
resulting in deaths on both sides.
The violent reaction has
become the most critical test of Morsy's ability to steer the nation since his
election last June, and the president declared a curfew and state of emergency
along the entire Suez Canal in an effort to contain the unrest. But Morsy's
attempt to restore order only highlighted his precarious control over Egypt and
its institutions, and the canal cities reacted with outright defiance.
Mahmoud Kandil, a
bespectacled accountant, filmed the protests on his phone.
"This is how
Egyptians do a curfew," he shouted gleefully.
The celebration did
not last. As the tail end of the march passed the quiet and debris-littered
al-Arab police station, its interior unlit and its walls blackened by soot where
angry mobs had thrown Molotov cocktails earlier in the day, rifle cracks echoed
from its direction. Immediately, the louder, booming response of homemade
pistols shattered the night. In a warren of shadowed market alleys crowded with
awnings, fences, and covered merchandise stands, young men scurried in groups
of three and four, trying to approach the source of gunfire.
The men gathered at
the intersection of two alleys and peered around the corner. Several dozen feet
away stood the station. Kandil sprinted across, then others followed. More
shots rang out, and a man came careening back around the corner.
He clutched his head,
his eyes wide: "Someone died! We have to help him! There's someone dead!"
Young men bunched at
the opposite corner, trying to see. One clutched a pistol with two hands, held
it by his thigh, leaned into the alley, and fired a blast at the station.
Osama Sherbini, a
21-year-old commerce student, had been shot through the neck. Mohammed Assi,
one of the protesters who had rushed across the intersection, said he saw a man
hiding behind a metal kiosk fall to the ground, ricocheting bullets sparking
around his body. He was dead before he reached one of the city's hospitals.
Sherbini was not the
only casualty that night. Another man reportedly died while being taken to receive
better care in the city of Zagazig, along the ill-maintained highway, and a
third was fatally shot in the pelvis. The three days of fighting claimed at least 45 lives.
The crisis began with
what could have been mistaken for a provincial dispute: Families were outraged
after a court sentenced
their local soccer fans to death on Jan. 26. But it also pulled back the
curtain on a state that seemed suddenly and stunningly absent.
In the aftermath of
the riots, police all but abandoned the streets. Businessmen said trade in fuel
and other goods nearly shut down, as did the city's ports. Army APCs took
positions outside the governorate administration building, the port, and the
main power station -- but the military refused to crack down on protesters. Residents openly defied Morsy's edicts and cursed his Muslim
Brotherhood. Akram el-Shaer, a once-popular local politician elected to
parliament under the Brotherhood's banner, went underground with his family. His
second-floor office at a busy intersection was abandoned and its windows
Indeed, it was hard
to find evidence that Morsy's government had any power.
"The authorities have
lifted their hand," said Adel, a police lieutenant colonel drinking coffee
outside an empty hotel on Tuesday morning, his log book open on the table. "There
is no state."
Adel, a top detective,
had joined the curfew-breaking march the previous night. He said that police,
such as those who had remained inside al-Arab station, had been left with
orders to respond in kind to protesters. If the protesters threw rocks, they
would shoot tear gas and birdshot; if the protesters fired guns, they were
instructed to fire back.
"[The authorities] are
sitting in their houses, waiting to cash their salaries at the end of the
month, without taking any action toward the disintegration of the town, leaving
people to the chaos," he complained.
In Port Said, the
blame for this state of affairs was placed squarely on Morsy. The city has
never been friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood: Today, it is still possible to
glimpse a portrait of Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president, spread across the
awning of a balcony along a main road into the city.
In November 2011,
during the post-revolution parliamentary elections that were dominated nationally
by the Brotherhood, Port Said split its votes between the Islamists and the
newer, more secular parties. Last May, in the crowded first round of the
presidential election, residents overwhelmingly voted for charismatic socialist
Hamdeen Sabahi, and Morsy came in third. In June, when the choice narrowed in
the second round to Morsy or Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's controversial last prime
minister, Port Said chose Shafiq.
Many residents still
revere former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who lavished Port Said with praise
after its citizens fought guerrilla battles against the forces of Israel,
France, and Britain during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, when the regional powers
attempted to reverse Nasser's nationalization of the canal. Banners in the city
these days read "justice for the descendants of '56, or chaos for the nation."
But the glory days
have long past. Buildings that survived the 1956 war are falling apart, and local
pride has been tempered by decades of disregard. As in much of Egypt, income
disparity is extreme. The head of the regional electricity company may take in
as much as two million pounds in salary and benefits every month, or roughly
$300,000, while one of his accountants earns $300, an employee lamented. Nepotism
is a sanctioned business practice, while firing an employee must be approved at
the highest levels, where there is often government or military control.
Residents, who see
their city and its ports as one of Egypt's largest sources of income, said they
have received little recompense, fueling resentment toward the central
government. These simmering grievances came to a bloody climax after the death
sentences were announced.
Adel Shehata, the
father of one of the defendants in the stadium riot case, used the same
language to explain his disappointment as he sat in a café near the deserted
seaside promenade, a few blocks from the stadium.
didn't start to overthrow Mubarak, it started with demands for bread, freedom,
and dignity, raised by the neglect of the regime," he said. "And Morsy is
taking the same course."
Shehata wears a long
gray beard and buzzed hair cut in the style of strict Salafi Muslims but said
he was a longstanding member of the Wafd, Egypt's storied, secular opposition
party. Still, he said he voted for Morsy in the second round of the election
because he could not bear to see Shafiq, the very symbol of Mubarak's regime,
put into power.
In Port Said, as
elsewhere in Egypt, soccer rivalries are often as bitterly contested as
political battles. Shehata and his 21-year-old son Mohammed are loyal fans of the
city's top club, al-Masry, known as the Green Eagles. Mohammed is known by his
nickname, Hummus, given for his resemblance to a player from the top club in
Ismailia -- a canal city to the south, also under a state of emergency -- who
goes by the same name. Shehata, an industrial skills teacher at a preparatory
school, is known as Abu Hummus -- the father of Hummus.
With a group of
friends, Shehata and his son formed a cheering section they called the Super
Greens. On Feb. 1, 2012, the night of the disaster, Shehata said the Super
Greens left immediately after his team's surprising 3-1 victory against Cairo's
al-Ahly club and watched the ensuing chaos, during which hundreds of people in
al-Masry's stands brutally attacked the Ahly fans, on television at a café.
Hummus was arrested
soon afterward and charged, along with 71 others. His lawyer, Ashraf el-Ezeby,
who represents eight al-Masry fans, the stadium's lighting technician, and the
club's manager and security chief, said police have no evidence of Hummus's
participation and arrested him only because he is a particularly well-known supporter
of the club. Relatives of other defendants have told similar
stories of baseless arrests.
On Saturday, Hummus
and 20 other defendants were sentenced to death -- more than the total number
of death sentences imposed in the hundreds of cases that have been filed
against police accused of killing protesters during the revolution. In the days
before the sentencing, Shehata and other relatives of the defendants held a sit-in
near Port Said's prison and shouted back and forth with their sons through the
prison windows, he said. Lawyers had assured the families that their sons would
be found not guilty.
verdict, these families attempted to storm the prison -- video of the
incident shows men in the crowd with AK-47s firing toward the walls. Two police
officers were killed in the first minutes of the fighting, and guards returned
fire. In the ensuing battle, 33 people died. The next day, as demonstrations at
the prison continued, seven more people were killed, including a man shot while
sitting among the crowd in the street in his wheelchair.
Shehata, Ezeby, and
other Port Said residents refuse to believe that the defendants' families were
carrying weapons. Most of those at the sit-in were women and the elderly, and
guns had been forbidden, Shehata said. Police said
they recovered four automatic weapons and 10 shotguns from the 14 people
they arrested after the attacks. Shehata and others claimed that outsiders who
sensed a chance to free their own relatives from the prison must have snuck in.
Mohammed el-Aqtash, a
35-year-old electrical engineer for the Suez Canal Authority and local
coordinator for Sabahi's movement, agreed.
"There was a
simultaneous attack on the prison, a police station, a courthouse, water and
electricity stations, and then two more police stations," said Aqtash. "It
couldn't have been the families."
To Port Saidis, the
city had been "sold" to placate the wealthier, more influential, and more
dangerous Cairo fan base, some of whom had blocked metro lines and busy
thoroughfares in the capital, threatening chaos if the case didn't go their
way. The verdict was further proof of Port Said's marginalization, though the
city did not need any: Across the street from Mariam Mosque, where the bodies
of the dead were carried for prayers before their burial, stood Suleimani
Hospital, considered the city's best. It was not a project of the government but
of a charitable local engineer, Mohamed Ali Suleiman, who had solicited public
donations to build it.
remarks have been singularly unhelpful in quelling the anger of the city's
residents. The president appeared on television on Jan. 27 to announce the state of emergency,
wagging his finger in paternal disapproval. He thanked the hated police,
ordered the interior minister to act with "all force and decisiveness," and,
most maddeningly to Port Saidis, declared that court rulings should be
respected, as they are "not biased."
Residents found the
latter admonition darkly ironic, since it was Morsy who had issued a Nov. 22
edict placing himself above judicial review in order to finish the constitution
in the face of a nearly total opposition walkout. It was also the Brotherhood
and other Islamists who then surrounded the High Constitutional Court with a
sit-in protest, effectively preventing the judges from convening to rule on the
legality of Morsy's decision.
"It shows that Egypt
is lost, Egypt is gone, and the president of Egypt, he is the first to violate
and ignore the verdicts of the courts," Shehata said.
With trust in Morsy,
the police, and the courts evaporated, many Port Saidis feel they must fend for
themselves. Even the army seems unable to do its job: As the gun battle erupted
around al-Arab police station on Jan. 28, a command SUV and troop truck first
drove toward the fighting then quickly turned around and left, even as a young
man ran to the SUV's window and pleaded for the officer and his men to stay. A
handful of APCs are now all that stands between the aggrieved crowds and some
of the most important facilities in the country.
"If something goes
wrong in the street today, who do you go to for help?" asked Hisham Salama, the
general director of the city's hulking east port, as he sat in an upscale café
near the canal, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee with friends. With his
port doing little work because of the crisis, he had time to kill.
Salama served as chief
judge of the regional military command's court system and spent 16 years in the
military intelligence service, he said. Like many experienced military men, he
had subsequently been eased into a well-paying executive position at a
strategic state institution. He still kept his hair and mustache closely
cropped, but now he wore a long black coat over a pale blue dress shirt and
tie, with a large watch on one wrist and a bracelet on the other.
Salama said the
military should have already intervened in the country's politics, but that the
top officers, recently moved into command after Morsy orchestrated the
departure of long-serving commander-in-chief Hussein Tantawi and his chief of
staff, were hesitant and less experienced. On Jan. 29, Defense Minister
Abdelfattah al-Sisi signaled such an intervention remained possible, warning of
the "collapse of the state" if the crisis enveloping Port Said, Cairo, and
other cities continued.
Salama's real fear,
he said, was that Morsy and his allies were intent on "Brotherhoodizing" the
country, removing old executives with ties to Mubarak's regime and promoting low-ranking,
Islamist-friendly staff throughout state ministries to tighten their grip on
power. He and other business leaders
from the Canal Zone had recently been brought before parliament's transportation
and national security committees, he said, where they were asked why their
positions always seemed to be handed to military men. It seemed, Salama thought,
that the Brotherhood wanted to extend its reach over the profit-making canal.
Like other Port
Saidis, however, Salama was not about to go quietly.
"The current administration has no
background in the financial or political situation in the country," he said.
"These people have spent almost 60 years being jailed and held captive but have
no experience whatsoever in how to run and manage a country. The new regime
should have built trust between itself and the people after the elections, but
now that trust is gone."