Egypt descended into chaos Monday as fresh clashes between protesters and security forces rocked cities around the country, with few people honoring a 9 p.m. curfew that had been ordered in three provinces as demonstrators took to the streets to curse Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
The military that President Mohammed Morsi had ordered into the streets Sunday to restore calm did little to confront the mayhem, though it was unclear whether the troops were defying orders or simply incapable of confronting the crowds. Protesters climbed onto tanks in some cities, while in the city of Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal, witnesses said soldiers fled when shots rang out near a police station at around 10 p.m.
At least one civilian was fatally shot near the police station, and another 11 were wounded, state television reported. At least 60 people have died in protests since Saturday.
The bedlam seemed eerily similar to that of two years ago, when then-President Hosni Mubarak was unable to end protests that led to his resignation 18 days after they began.
On Sunday, Morsi, who took office just seven months ago promising reforms, had issued a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in a fiery speech in which he scolded Egyptians for the protests. But festive defiance greeted the arrival of the curfew Monday night, as women and men danced and sang.
“Oh, it’s 9 o’clock!!” they yelled as the appointed hour arrived. Then they shouted, “The curfew’s gone, son of whore,” referring to Morsi.
Perhaps the most common chant of the day was “Leave!”
On news channels, screens were split to show the places around the country that were engulfed in protests and clashes with security forces: Port Said, Suez, Cairo and Alexandria. In Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, where the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising began, a stolen police armored personnel carrier sat charred and abandoned. Around the capital, protesters attempted to storm government buildings. In cities that weren’t under curfew, residents held 9 p.m. protests in solidarity.
Morsi called Prime Minister Hesham Kandil on Monday night to discuss the protests, though the outcome of that conversation wasn’t made public. He gave the army the authority to arrest civilians in all 27 provinces – an irony, coming two years to the day that Morsi escaped from prison after he’d been arrested during the anti-Mubarak uprising.
To be sure, for all those who took to the streets Monday, there were just as many who stayed home, thinking that Morsi hasn’t had a chance to solve Egypt’s intractable corruption and economic problems. They think that protesters should honor the June election results that elevated Morsi to the presidency and speak at the ballot box in upcoming parliamentary and eventually presidential elections.
But Monday’s clashes continued the disturbing trend of violent protest that began two months ago. No one could say where the demonstrations might lead. While some protesters said they wanted Morsi to step down, none could say who should replace him.
The main opposition grouping, the National Salvation Front, which is fractured among many smaller parties, said Monday that it wouldn’t hold national reconciliation talks with Morsi, a position, some protesters said, that made the opposition seem as tone deaf as the president.
Protesters also rejected a military takeover, noting that the generals had assumed power after Mubarak stepped down and had failed in 18 months of rule to bring about reform.
“Egypt needs real change, and people don’t believe anything is changing. What’s worse is that everyone is playing politics for an election most people don’t even know is coming,” said Mohammed Noor, 26, of Port Said, referring to April’s parliamentary elections. “Don’t tell me people are going to the street because they have a hard life. They are taking revenge for the killings. It is like waves of vengeance. It will continue until one side gets tired or this turns into a real revolution with real leaders.”
Some at Port Said called for the province to secede from Egypt, pointing out that it holds the country’s largest port and second-largest oil reserve.
In Cairo, others proposed another election.
“When he was first elected, Morsi went to Tahrir and said if the people don’t want me, I will leave. He opened his coat and said, ‘This is to show you that everyone likes me,’ ” said Emad Mehrez, 51, a hotel manager. “The first elections were not right. We want a new constitution. We want the men with beards to go,” a reference to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive Islamist society through which Morsi rose to prominence.
Looking ahead, there are many more opportunities for controversial issues to spark more protests.
Mubarak is expected to be retried after his conviction was overturned on charges that he’d ordered protesters to be killed during the 2011 uprising. On March 9, a court in Port Said is expected to announce a second round of verdicts in the deaths of 74 fans last year in a riot after a soccer game. The first round of verdicts Saturday, in which 21 fans of Port Said’s soccer team were sentenced to death, sparked the current protest.
Next month, the government is to make its case for a loan from the International Monetary Fund, and in April, it is supposed to hold parliamentary elections. Either event is likely to stir anger and emotions that could lead to violence in a country where at least 32 people died Saturday in reaction to the soccer-riot verdict.
How exactly that violence unfolded here remained uncertain Monday. In some cases, protesters threw rocks at the police and were met with tear gas and live ammunition. In others, it appeared that protesters had fired on the police.
At the funeral Sunday for the 32 who’d been killed the day before, at least 12 more died, leading to more clashes and Monday’s curfew. Morgue officials have said that all those who were killed died from gunfire.
Unlike most Egyptian towns, Port Said played only a small role in the 2011 uprising, with many here crediting Mubarak for the city’s relatively vibrant economy.
But support for Morsi was never great – the country’s new Islamist-written constitution received just 51 percent of the vote here in last month’s referendum – and the court’s decision to execute 21 residents for the soccer riot last Feb. 1 became a flash point. Many here think that the 21 weren’t involved in the mayhem but were rounded up a week later as scapegoats.
“Even if they are responsible, the 21, why are they punishing the rest of the city?” asked Alsayda Ali, a 31-year-old housewife and mother of four.
“Mubarak didn’t kill anyone. He was only after money. Morsi is killing us,” said Sayed Hassan Gamal, 59, a retired Port Said salt factory worker.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.