ISMAILIA/CAIRO, Egypt: Thousands of Egyptian protesters ignored a curfew Monday to take to the streets in cities along the Suez Canal, defying a state of emergency imposed by Islamist President Mohammad Mursi to end days of violence that has killed at least 51 people.
One man was killed in Port Said and another was shot dead in Cairo, continuing a wave of violence unleashed last week on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the popular revolt that brought down autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Political opponents spurned a call by Mursi for talks to try to end the bloodshed with main opposition groups refusing to attend a meeting.
Instead, huge crowds of protesters took to the streets in the capital Cairo, Alexandria and in the three Suez Canal cities – Port Said, Ismailia and Suez – where Mursi imposed emergency rule and a curfew Sunday.
“Down, down with Mohammad Mursi! Down, down with the state of emergency!” crowds shouted in Ismailia in defiance of the restrictions. In Cairo, flames lit up the night sky as protesters set police vehicles ablaze.
In Port Said, men attacked police stations after dark. A security source said some police and troops were injured. A medical source said one man was killed in clashes.
“The people want to bring down the regime,” crowds chanted in Alexandria. “Leave means go, and don’t say no!”
The demonstrators accuse Mubarak’s successor Mursi of betraying the revolution that brought down the former dictator. The Muslim Brotherhood leader and his supporters accuse the protesters of seeking to overthrow the country’s first ever democratically elected leader through undemocratic means.
Monday was the second anniversary of one of the bloodiest days in the revolution, which erupted on Jan. 25, 2011, ending Mubarak’s iron rule just 18 days later.
The past two years have seen the Islamists win two referendums, two parliamentary elections and a presidential vote. But that legitimacy has been challenged by an opposition that accuses Mursi of imposing a new form of authoritarianism, as well as repeated waves of unrest that have prevented a return to stability in the most populous Arab state.
The army has already been deployed in Port Said and Suez and the government agreed a measure to let soldiers arrest civilians as part of the state of emergency.
A Cabinet source told Reuters any trials would be in civilian courts, but the step is likely to anger protesters who accuse Mursi of using tactics similar to those used by Mubarak.
Propelled to the presidency in a June election by the Brotherhood, Mursi has lurched through a series of political crises and violent demonstrations while trying to shore up the economy and prepare for a parliamentary election to cement the new democracy in a few months.
This instability unnerves Western capitals, where officials worry about the direction of a key regional player that has a peace deal with Israel. The United States condemned the deadly violence and called on Egyptian leaders to make clear such actions are not acceptable.
In Cairo Monday, police fired volleys of tear gas at stone-throwing protesters near Tahrir Square, cauldron of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Protesters stormed into the downtown Semiramis Intercontinental hotel and burned two police vehicles.
A 46-year-old bystander was killed by a gunshot, a security source said. It was not clear who fired.
“We want to bring down the regime and end the state that is run by the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Ibrahim Eissa, a 26-year-old cook, as he protected his face from tear gas wafting towards him.
The political unrest has been exacerbated by street violence linked to death penalties imposed on soccer supporters convicted of involvement in stadium rioting in Port Said a year ago.
As part of emergency measures, a daily curfew will be imposed on the three canal cities from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The president announced the measures on television Sunday: “The protection of the nation is the responsibility of everyone. We will confront any threat to its security with force and firmness within the remit of the law.”
His demeanour in the address infuriated his opponents, not least when he wagged a finger at the camera.
Although he offered condolences to families of victims, his invitation to Islamist allies and their opponents to hold a national dialogue was spurned by the main opposition National Salvation Front coalition. Those who attended were mostly Mursi’s supporters or sympathisers.
The Front dismissed the offer of talks as “cosmetic and not substantive” and set conditions for any future meeting, such as forming a government of national unity, that have not been met in the past. The group also demanded that Mursi declare himself responsible for the bloodshed.
“We will send a message to the Egyptian people and the president of the republic about what we think are the essentials for dialogue. If he agrees to them, we are ready for dialogue,” opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei told a news conference.
The opposition Front has distanced itself from the latest flare-ups but said Mursi should have acted far sooner to impose security measures that would have ended the violence.
“Of course we feel the president is missing the real problem on the ground, which is his own policies,” Front spokesman Khaled Dawoud said after Mursi made his declaration.
Other activists said Mursi’s measures to try to impose control on the turbulent streets could backfire.
“Martial law, state of emergency and army arrests of civilians are not a solution to the crisis,” said Ahmad Maher of April 6, a movement that helped galvanize the 2011 uprising. “All this will do is further provoke the youth. The solution has to be a political one that addresses the roots of the problem.”
Rights activists said Mursi’s declaration was a backward step for Egypt, which was under emergency law for Mubarak’s entire 30-year rule.
His police used sweeping arrest provisions to muzzle dissent and round up opponents, including members of the Brotherhood and even Mursi himself.