Several Egyptian cities, most notably Port Said, have been rocked by days of deadly riots, prompting an imposition of curfews and emergency measures. Several politically charged factors combined to create conditions ripe for trouble. The second anniversary of the revolution was last week. The economy is a shambles. President Mohamed Morsi’s rule has become increasingly controversial. The ongoing influence of the security services and their apparent impunity for abuses during the revolution rankle many Egyptians. A new trial has been ordered for former President Mubarak and his controversial interior minister, Habib el-Adly; Mubarak reportedly enjoys comfortable conditions in the military hospital where he is held.
The spark that fell onto this rich tinder was the verdict in a trial over one of post-revolutionary Egypt’s most controversial incidents—a February 2012 riot after a soccer match in Port Said that saw a thousand injuries and nearly eighty deaths. Security forces were widely criticized for what was at best neglectful crowd management—hooligans were able to charge across the field and attack visiting fans, who found many escape routes blocked. This led to accusations that the violence had been deliberate, as the visiting fans were known to be vocal opponents of the military’s rule. Given the security forces’ ongoing power to protect themselves and their allies, the twenty-one death sentences that resulted from the trial came as quite a surprise. Victims’ families were jubilant, but furious Port Said residents tried to storm the prison. More than thirty died. The day before, antigovernment protests in the two governorates south of Port Said had turned deadly. Egypt along the Suez was now aflame.
Morsi responded by declaring a state of emergency in the affected provinces, giving security forces sweeping powers to detain people. Since this had been a prominent feature of Mubarak’s time in power, Morsi’s action was considered a major step. Indeed, he had promised while campaigning that he would not reimpose Mubarak’s state of emergency, and argued that Egypt under his rule would be stable enough to make emergency measures unnecessary. Yet this was not enough to contain the violence. Members of the security elite began to make remarks with a hint of menace toward Morsi—defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sissi suggested that the violence “could lead to grave repercussions if the political forces do not act.” He warned of the “collapse of the state.” Liberal critics, meanwhile, homed in on Morsi’s broken promise and suggested that the failure to secure Port Said during the controversial verdict reflected very poorly on his leadership.
The consensus underpinning Morsi’s rule is now under strain. The security elite had essentially agreed to leave Morsi with significant political and social powers, provided he refrain from interfering with their extensive economic activities and their national-security role. The sagging economy and Morsi’s inability to create a stabilizing national political consensus (of which the recent unrest is a symptom) may have them reconsidering their current position. It’s hard to imagine anything truly drastic, like a coup—the military did not like becoming the national scapegoat when it took over for Mubarak—but the security forces are at least willing to publicly state their discontent.
Perhaps in response to these tremors, Morsi called for a dialogue with leaders of the opposition, who seem to be warming to the idea. They had resisted in the past. Their wariness is understandable. Morsi’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood are deep and longstanding, and a former insider alleges that Morsi “was downright submissive to the Brotherhood leadership” and opposed efforts to “democratize” the group’s internal workings. He left the Brotherhood to become president, but he has refrained from preventing its domination of the political scene, including the drafting of the new constitution. Prior to the revolution, he had repeatedly and openly made anti-Semitic remarks; after the revolution, he suggested to a top Middle East expert that the World Trade Center attacks had involved “something . . . from the inside” and told a group of visiting American senators that the bad publicity he had gotten in America was because “the media of the United States is controlled by certain forces.” Yet relations with Israel remain relatively stable, and Egypt’s response to the late 2012 air campaign against Gaza was more showmanship than substantive resistance; he even brokered the peace deal that ended the war. He even put a swift and rude end to Iran’s fantasy that the rise of an Islamist party in Egypt could allow cooperation against the West and Israel.