CAIRO (AP) ‚ Protesters and riot police clashed in Cairo and the riot-torn city of Port Said as Egypt’s political violence stretched into a fifth day on Monday, despite efforts by the Islamist president to contain the crisis by imposing a state of emergency in three provinces.
At least 56 people have been killed in the wave of violence, which has led to the military deploying in Port Said and another city along the Suez Canal and threatened to shake the control of President Mohammed Morsi’s government.
The main opposition coalition rejected Morsi’s call for national dialogue to resolve the crisis, demanding that he first make deep concessions to break what opponents call the monopoly that Islamists have tried to impose on power. The National Salvation Front said it wouldn’t join any dialogue until Morsi forms a national unity government and begins work to rewrite parts of the Islamist-backed constitution.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which forms the backbone of his rule, have instead tried to take a tougher approach. Angry and at times screaming and wagging his finger, Morsi went on national TV Sunday night and declared a 30-day state of emergency in the Suez Canal provinces of Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez, which are named after their main cities. A nighttime curfew goes into effect in those areas Monday ‚ though protesters are likely to challenge it.
In Port Said ‚ the hardest hit city so far with at least 44 people killed in clashes over the weekend ‚ thousands poured out into the streets Monday for the funeral of six people killed during clashes the day before. They offered prayers on the dead at the city’s Mariam mosque and marched with the bodies to the city’s cemetery about a mile away.
Two army helicopters hovered above the funeral.
Clashes erupted in the evening in the al-Arab district of the city, and a security forces’ armored personnel carried opened fire, one witness, Ibrahim Ezzideen, told The Associated Press. He did not have word on casualties. The same district saw heavy fighting the past two days.
In Cairo, hundreds of young, stone-throwing protesters fought pitched battles Monday with riot police near Qasr el-Nil Bridge, a landmark bridge over the Nile River next to major hotels. One protester died of gunshot wounds, according to health and security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press.
White clouds of tear gas hung over the area from early on Monday morning and at times wafted across the river to the upscale island of Zamalek and the leafy district of Garden City. The fighting was reminiscent of scenes two years ago to the day, when police and protesters battered each other on the same bridge in the most violent day of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Anger over Morsi’s latest measures was evident at the site of Monday’s clashes, near Tahrir Square.
“People died to gain their freedom, social justice, bread. Now after 29 years of the despotic Mubarak, we’re ruled by a worse regime: religious fascist, more dangerous,” said Mohammed Saber, a 65-year old engineer who came to watch the clashes with his wife and children.
The wave of violence began Thursday and accelerated the following day, which fell on the two-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Protests Friday that turned to clashes around the country left 11 dead, most of them in Suez.
The next day, riots exploded in Port Said after a court convicted and sentenced to death 21 defendants ‚ mostly locals ‚ for a mass soccer riot in the city’s main stadium a year ago. Rioters attacked police stations, clashed with security forces in the streets and shots and tear gas were fired at protester funerals in mayhem that left 44 people dead over the weekend.
Throughout the past five days, anger over the policies of Morsi, who in June became Egypt’s first freely elected president, and the slow rate of change have helped fuel the protests and clashes.
The opposition National Salvation Front has painted the explosion of unrest as a backlash against attempts by Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to monopolize power in Egypt. It says the instability is proof that Morsi doesn’t have enough legitimacy to bring security or achieve reforms alone.
In his television address, Morsi repeated calls for a national dialogue to resolve the nation’s problems, a call opponents have repeatedly rejected, saying the talks are mere window-dressing with no real say.
At a televised news conference, Salvation Front head Mohamed ElBaradei said the call was “without form and content.”
ElBaradei said Morsi must first appoint a national unity government and a commission to amend the disputed constitution ratified in a referendum last month before the opposition can join a dialogue. He also wants Morsi to take legislative powers away from the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, or the Shura Council. Normally, the body is toothless with no lawmaking powers but it is serving in the role until a new lower house is elected. Fewer than 10 percent of voters bothered to cast ballots in elections for the body last year.
“We support any dialogue if it has a clear agenda that can shepherd the nation to the shores of safety,” said ElBaradei, flanked by former Arab league chief Amr Moussa and leftist Hamdeen Sabahi.
The Front later issued a statement in which it said failure by Morsi to meet its conditions should be cause for early presidential elections, now scheduled for 2016. It also insisted Morsi, his administration and the interior minister bore political responsibility for last weekend’s bloodshed and called for the lifting as soon as possible of the state of emergency declared in the three Suez Canal provinces.
It also called for mass, nationwide protests on Friday.
An official at President Mohammed Morsi’s office said the dialogue will go ahead as scheduled later on Monday despite the absence of what he called “some forces.” The official listed six parties and two political figures to be participating in the dialogue. They are mostly Islamist groups supporting Morsi.
The military was deployed in Suez on Friday and in Port Said the next day ‚ a move that threatens to drag the armed forces into a direct conflict with protesters.
The Cabinet on Monday approved draft legislation that would authorize the armed forces to work alongside police in keeping security and arrest civilians, the state news agency MENA said. The military would have that role until the end of parliamentary elections, expected in April.
The legislation, quickly adopted by the Shoura Council for approval, means soldiers would be maintaining law and order on the streets alongside the police at a time when many Egyptians are increasingly distrustful of both.
The state of emergency call has sparked criticism that Morsi is using the same methods as Mubarak, who maintained his police-state rule through emergency laws in effect over the entire country throughout his rule.
Morsi has struggled to address the country’s daunting social and economic problems since taking power in June. A relative unknown until his Muslim Brotherhood nominated him to run for president last year, he has been criticized for offering no coherent policy to tackle seemingly endless problems, from a free falling economy and deeply entrenched social injustices to surging crime and chaos on the streets.