CAIRO/PORT SAID, Egypt: Thousands of mourners chanting for the downfall of Egypt’s president marched Tuesday in funeral processions in Port Said as the army chief warned the state could collapse if the latest political crisis drags on.
Army chief and Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s warning, his first comments after six days of rioting and violence across the country, appeared aimed at pressuring President Mohammad Mursi as well as his opponents to find some common ground and end the worst political crisis to hit Egypt since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
So far, the military – which for months seems to have had an understanding with Mursi – has allowed him to deal with the crisis, deploying troops and tanks on his orders over the weekend in Port Said and Suez, two riot-torn cities along the strategic Suez Canal.
But it has been willing to go only so far, clearly reluctant to clash with protesters. Troops stood by and watched Monday night as thousands took to the streets in direct defiance of a nighttime curfew and a 30-day state of emergency declared by Mursi in the cities.
Residents there and in Ismailia, a third city also under emergency rule, marched just as the curfew came into force at 9 p.m.
The last time Sissi delved into politics was late last year, when he invited political leaders to an informal gathering to ease tensions during clashes and protests at the time.
But the invitation was swiftly withdrawn, and leaders from Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood later suggested that Sissi had overstepped the boundaries by intervening.
“The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations,” Sissi wrote on the armed forces’ Facebook page.
He defended Egyptians’ right to protest, while acknowledging that the deployment in the canal cities put the armed forces in a “grave predicament.”
He added the troops must balance “avoiding confrontations” with protesters with protecting “vital facilities.”
Sissi, who Mursi appointed to both posts last August, also spoke of a “realistic threat” facing the nation as a result of what he called the political, economic and social challenges.
Mursi announced Tuesday night he had canceled a visit to Europe this week.
The president had been due visit to Berlin Wednesday before going to Paris Thursday to meet with French President Francois Hollande over breakfast the following day.
The president’s office said Mursi would consider canceling or cutting short the state of emergency and the curfew if security improved by next week.
The statement appeared to be an attempt to defuse the wave of fury aimed at the president in the three cities currently under emergency rule. The anger has escalated to a virtual rebellion that many worry could spread to other parts of the country.
In Cairo, intense fighting for days around central Tahrir Square engulfed two landmark hotels and forced the U.S. Embassy to suspend public services Tuesday. The lobby of the five-star Semiramis hotel along the Nile was trashed when armed, masked men attempted to loot it amid clashes outside early Tuesday morning.
In Port Said, scene of the worst violence over the past six days, thousands marched in funeral processions for six of the more than 40 people killed in the city’s clashes since Saturday, chanting against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some of the demonstrators in Port Said Monday night waved white-and-green flags, saying they were the colors of a new and independent state.
Such secession would be unthinkable, but the sentiment underlined the depth of the frustration felt among protesters. Tanks were scattered across the city, which is home to some 600,000 people and sits 140 miles northeast of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast, just at the tip of the Suez Canal.
Sissi’s comments raised questions over the military’s stance if the crisis continues to swell. The army formed the backbone of Mubarak’s regime and its generals stepped into rule directly after Mubarak’s removal in February 2011.
The military’s nearly 17-month stint in power tainted its reputation in the eyes of many Egyptians who accused it of mismanaging the transition and carrying out human rights abuses.
The Brotherhood largely accepted military rule, seeing it as paving the way to elections that would eventually bring the Islamist party to political power.
But the relationship was contentious: Before officially handing power over to Mursi after his election, the generals tried to keep sweeping powers. Within two months, Mursi took these back, sidelined the top generals and handpicked Sissi as defense minister and head of the armed forces.