The Republic of Port Said
An insurrection along the Suez Canal represents the greatest threat yet to the Muslim Brotherhood's rule in Egypt.
PORT SAID, Egypt — On Jan. 28, thousands of Port Said residents broke the first night of President Mohamed Morsy's curfew with a raucous march that wound past the faded grandeur of the seafront's old buildings.
Families watched from balconies above the rain-soaked streets. They tossed bananas and lowered buckets of water by rope. Soldiers watched idly and chatted with protesters beside their armored personnel carriers. Marchers directed their chants at Morsy: "The curfew -- up your mother's!"
What began as a soccer rivalry between Cairo and this city of 600,000 at the mouth of the Suez Canal sparked a tragic stadium riot in February 2012 and has now grown into a miniature insurrection. After a court's decision to hand down 21 death sentences against Port Said soccer supporters for their role in the riot, outraged men allegedly rushed toward the prison and tried to shoot the inmates out, resulting in deaths on both sides.
PORT SAID, Egypt — On Jan. 28, thousands of Port Said residents broke the first night of President Mohamed Morsy’s curfew with a raucous march that wound past the faded grandeur of the seafront’s old buildings.
Families watched from balconies above the rain-soaked streets. They tossed bananas and lowered buckets of water by rope. Soldiers watched idly and chatted with protesters beside their armored personnel carriers. Marchers directed their chants at Morsy: "The curfew — up your mother’s!"
What began as a soccer rivalry between Cairo and this city of 600,000 at the mouth of the Suez Canal sparked a tragic stadium riot in February 2012 and has now grown into a miniature insurrection. After a court’s decision to hand down 21 death sentences against Port Said soccer supporters for their role in the riot, outraged men allegedly rushed toward the prison and tried to shoot the inmates out, resulting in deaths on both sides.
The violent reaction has become the most critical test of Morsy’s ability to steer the nation since his election last June, and the president declared a curfew and state of emergency along the entire Suez Canal in an effort to contain the unrest. But Morsy’s attempt to restore order only highlighted his precarious control over Egypt and its institutions, and the canal cities reacted with outright defiance.
Mahmoud Kandil, a bespectacled accountant, filmed the protests on his phone.
"This is how Egyptians do a curfew," he shouted gleefully.
The celebration did not last. As the tail end of the march passed the quiet and debris-littered al-Arab police station, its interior unlit and its walls blackened by soot where angry mobs had thrown Molotov cocktails earlier in the day, rifle cracks echoed from its direction. Immediately, the louder, booming response of homemade pistols shattered the night. In a warren of shadowed market alleys crowded with awnings, fences, and covered merchandise stands, young men scurried in groups of three and four, trying to approach the source of gunfire.
The men gathered at the intersection of two alleys and peered around the corner. Several dozen feet away stood the station. Kandil sprinted across, then others followed. More shots rang out, and a man came careening back around the corner.
He clutched his head, his eyes wide: "Someone died! We have to help him! There’s someone dead!"
Young men bunched at the opposite corner, trying to see. One clutched a pistol with two hands, held it by his thigh, leaned into the alley, and fired a blast at the station.
Osama Sherbini, a 21-year-old commerce student, had been shot through the neck. Mohammed Assi, one of the protesters who had rushed across the intersection, said he saw a man hiding behind a metal kiosk fall to the ground, ricocheting bullets sparking around his body. He was dead before he reached one of the city’s hospitals.
Sherbini was not the only casualty that night. Another man reportedly died while being taken to receive better care in the city of Zagazig, along the ill-maintained highway, and a third was fatally shot in the pelvis. The three days of fighting claimed at least 45 lives.
The crisis began with what could have been mistaken for a provincial dispute: Families were outraged after a court sentenced their local soccer fans to death on Jan. 26. But it also pulled back the curtain on a state that seemed suddenly and stunningly absent.
In the aftermath of the riots, police all but abandoned the streets. Businessmen said trade in fuel and other goods nearly shut down, as did the city’s ports. Army APCs took positions outside the governorate administration building, the port, and the main power station — but the military refused to crack down on protesters. Residents openly defied Morsy’s edicts and cursed his Muslim Brotherhood. Akram el-Shaer, a once-popular local politician elected to parliament under the Brotherhood’s banner, went underground with his family. His second-floor office at a busy intersection was abandoned and its windows broken.
Indeed, it was hard to find evidence that Morsy’s government had any power.
"The authorities have lifted their hand," said Adel, a police lieutenant colonel drinking coffee outside an empty hotel on Tuesday morning, his log book open on the table. "There is no state."
Adel, a top detective, had joined the curfew-breaking march the previous night. He said that police, such as those who had remained inside al-Arab station, had been left with orders to respond in kind to protesters. If the protesters threw rocks, they would shoot tear gas and birdshot; if the protesters fired guns, they were instructed to fire back.
"[The authorities] are sitting in their houses, waiting to cash their salaries at the end of the month, without taking any action toward the disintegration of the town, leaving people to the chaos," he complained.
In Port Said, the blame for this state of affairs was placed squarely on Morsy. The city has never been friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood: Today, it is still possible to glimpse a portrait of Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president, spread across the awning of a balcony along a main road into the city.
In November 2011, during the post-revolution parliamentary elections that were dominated nationally by the Brotherhood, Port Said split its votes between the Islamists and the newer, more secular parties. Last May, in the crowded first round of the presidential election, residents overwhelmingly voted for charismatic socialist Hamdeen Sabahi, and Morsy came in third. In June, when the choice narrowed in the second round to Morsy or Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s controversial last prime minister, Port Said chose Shafiq.
Many residents still revere former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who lavished Port Said with praise after its citizens fought guerrilla battles against the forces of Israel, France, and Britain during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, when the regional powers attempted to reverse Nasser’s nationalization of the canal. Banners in the city these days read "justice for the descendants of ’56, or chaos for the nation."
But the glory days have long past. Buildings that survived the 1956 war are falling apart, and local pride has been tempered by decades of disregard. As in much of Egypt, income disparity is extreme. The head of the regional electricity company may take in as much as two million pounds in salary and benefits every month, or roughly $300,000, while one of his accountants earns $300, an employee lamented. Nepotism is a sanctioned business practice, while firing an employee must be approved at the highest levels, where there is often government or military control.
Residents, who see their city and its ports as one of Egypt’s largest sources of income, said they have received little recompense, fueling resentment toward the central government. These simmering grievances came to a bloody climax after the death sentences were announced.
Adel Shehata, the father of one of the defendants in the stadium riot case, used the same language to explain his disappointment as he sat in a café near the deserted seaside promenade, a few blocks from the stadium.
"The revolution didn’t start to overthrow Mubarak, it started with demands for bread, freedom, and dignity, raised by the neglect of the regime," he said. "And Morsy is taking the same course."
Shehata wears a long gray beard and buzzed hair cut in the style of strict Salafi Muslims but said he was a longstanding member of the Wafd, Egypt’s storied, secular opposition party. Still, he said he voted for Morsy in the second round of the election because he could not bear to see Shafiq, the very symbol of Mubarak’s regime, put into power.
In Port Said, as elsewhere in Egypt, soccer rivalries are often as bitterly contested as political battles. Shehata and his 21-year-old son Mohammed are loyal fans of the city’s top club, al-Masry, known as the Green Eagles. Mohammed is known by his nickname, Hummus, given for his resemblance to a player from the top club in Ismailia — a canal city to the south, also under a state of emergency — who goes by the same name. Shehata, an industrial skills teacher at a preparatory school, is known as Abu Hummus — the father of Hummus.
With a group of friends, Shehata and his son formed a cheering section they called the Super Greens. On Feb. 1, 2012, the night of the disaster, Shehata said the Super Greens left immediately after his team’s surprising 3-1 victory against Cairo’s al-Ahly club and watched the ensuing chaos, during which hundreds of people in al-Masry’s stands brutally attacked the Ahly fans, on television at a café.
Hummus was arrested soon afterward and charged, along with 71 others. His lawyer, Ashraf el-Ezeby, who represents eight al-Masry fans, the stadium’s lighting technician, and the club’s manager and security chief, said police have no evidence of Hummus’s participation and arrested him only because he is a particularly well-known supporter of the club. Relatives of other defendants have told similar stories of baseless arrests.
On Saturday, Hummus and 20 other defendants were sentenced to death — more than the total number of death sentences imposed in the hundreds of cases that have been filed against police accused of killing protesters during the revolution. In the days before the sentencing, Shehata and other relatives of the defendants held a sit-in near Port Said’s prison and shouted back and forth with their sons through the prison windows, he said. Lawyers had assured the families that their sons would be found not guilty.
Following the verdict, these families attempted to storm the prison — video of the incident shows men in the crowd with AK-47s firing toward the walls. Two police officers were killed in the first minutes of the fighting, and guards returned fire. In the ensuing battle, 33 people died. The next day, as demonstrations at the prison continued, seven more people were killed, including a man shot while sitting among the crowd in the street in his wheelchair.
Shehata, Ezeby, and other Port Said residents refuse to believe that the defendants’ families were carrying weapons. Most of those at the sit-in were women and the elderly, and guns had been forbidden, Shehata said. Police said they recovered four automatic weapons and 10 shotguns from the 14 people they arrested after the attacks. Shehata and others claimed that outsiders who sensed a chance to free their own relatives from the prison must have snuck in.
Mohammed el-Aqtash, a 35-year-old electrical engineer for the Suez Canal Authority and local coordinator for Sabahi’s movement, agreed.
"There was a simultaneous attack on the prison, a police station, a courthouse, water and electricity stations, and then two more police stations," said Aqtash. "It couldn’t have been the families."
To Port Saidis, the city had been "sold" to placate the wealthier, more influential, and more dangerous Cairo fan base, some of whom had blocked metro lines and busy thoroughfares in the capital, threatening chaos if the case didn’t go their way. The verdict was further proof of Port Said’s marginalization, though the city did not need any: Across the street from Mariam Mosque, where the bodies of the dead were carried for prayers before their burial, stood Suleimani Hospital, considered the city’s best. It was not a project of the government but of a charitable local engineer, Mohamed Ali Suleiman, who had solicited public donations to build it.
Morsy’s public remarks have been singularly unhelpful in quelling the anger of the city’s residents. The president appeared on television on Jan. 27 to announce the state of emergency, wagging his finger in paternal disapproval. He thanked the hated police, ordered the interior minister to act with "all force and decisiveness," and, most maddeningly to Port Saidis, declared that court rulings should be respected, as they are "not biased."
Residents found the latter admonition darkly ironic, since it was Morsy who had issued a Nov. 22 edict placing himself above judicial review in order to finish the constitution in the face of a nearly total opposition walkout. It was also the Brotherhood and other Islamists who then surrounded the High Constitutional Court with a sit-in protest, effectively preventing the judges from convening to rule on the legality of Morsy’s decision.
"It shows that Egypt is lost, Egypt is gone, and the president of Egypt, he is the first to violate and ignore the verdicts of the courts," Shehata said.
With trust in Morsy, the police, and the courts evaporated, many Port Saidis feel they must fend for themselves. Even the army seems unable to do its job: As the gun battle erupted around al-Arab police station on Jan. 28, a command SUV and troop truck first drove toward the fighting then quickly turned around and left, even as a young man ran to the SUV’s window and pleaded for the officer and his men to stay. A handful of APCs are now all that stands between the aggrieved crowds and some of the most important facilities in the country.
"If something goes wrong in the street today, who do you go to for help?" asked Hisham Salama, the general director of the city’s hulking east port, as he sat in an upscale café near the canal, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee with friends. With his port doing little work because of the crisis, he had time to kill.
Salama served as chief judge of the regional military command’s court system and spent 16 years in the military intelligence service, he said. Like many experienced military men, he had subsequently been eased into a well-paying executive position at a strategic state institution. He still kept his hair and mustache closely cropped, but now he wore a long black coat over a pale blue dress shirt and tie, with a large watch on one wrist and a bracelet on the other.
Salama said the military should have already intervened in the country’s politics, but that the top officers, recently moved into command after Morsy orchestrated the departure of long-serving commander-in-chief Hussein Tantawi and his chief of staff, were hesitant and less experienced. On Jan. 29, Defense Minister Abdelfattah al-Sisi signaled such an intervention remained possible, warning of the "collapse of the state" if the crisis enveloping Port Said, Cairo, and other cities continued.
Salama’s real fear, he said, was that Morsy and his allies were intent on "Brotherhoodizing" the country, removing old executives with ties to Mubarak’s regime and promoting low-ranking, Islamist-friendly staff throughout state ministries to tighten their grip on power. He and other business leaders from the Canal Zone had recently been brought before parliament’s transportation and national security committees, he said, where they were asked why their positions always seemed to be handed to military men. It seemed, Salama thought, that the Brotherhood wanted to extend its reach over the profit-making canal.
Like other Port Saidis, however, Salama was not about to go quietly.
"The current administration has no background in the financial or political situation in the country," he said. "These people have spent almost 60 years being jailed and held captive but have no experience whatsoever in how to run and manage a country. The new regime should have built trust between itself and the people after the elections, but now that trust is gone."
More from Foreign Policy
China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance
Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.
The Taliban Are Breaking Bad
Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.
Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.
What the Taliban Takeover Means for India
Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.