Riots in Port Said, Egypt Leave 73 Dead

At least seventy people have died and hundreds injured in clashes between fans of rival football teams in the Egyptian city of Port Said on Wednesday. The toll is likely to rise as the violence continued late in the evening.

Fans swarmed the field throwing stones and bottles when the fighting escalated. Though Field Marshal and acting President Mohamed Hussein Tantawi sent security forces to quell the violence, they will have a tough time stopping a field covered with angry young men. The unrest could well spread to the street and last through the night.

The riots come two days after a rare bank robbery. A branch of HSBC in New Cairo was hit by unknown robbers who made off with one million Egyptian pounds. HSBC reaffirmed its commitment to security but can it do so in today’s Egypt?

Violence in Egypt seems to be on the rise. The once disarmed population is gradually growing accustomed to hearing gunshots. Some locals say it is the police, shooting off rounds every few nights to scare people although I can report that I have seen young men in an alley with a handgun. A variety of anecdotes and rumors float around. Uncertainty is in the air.

The Sinai Peninsula is said to be in chaos. Bedouin kidnapped 25 Chinese workers on Tuesday. They were released the next day, unharmed. The terrorist attack on Israel’s resort of Eliat in August originated in the Sinai.

It is still early to make pronouncements on Egypt’s future stability. Nevertheless, the perception among many Egyptians is that, since the beginning of the revolution, street violence has increased.

Egyptians Take to Streets, Demand End to Military Rule

A protester in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Egypt, November 18
An Egyptian man protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, November 18 (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

“Down with the field marshal!” yell the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Thousands have been there since Friday, with many more spread out along the side streets. Most protesters are peacefully gathered, sometimes marching in groups of one or two hundred, but some are tackling the security forces head on.

Down the side streets, protesters are throwing rocks and petrol bombs and security forces respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. When one person is hit, others haul him back to the square where ambulances are running back and forth. There are a few makeshift hospitals in the square where people are getting treated for injuries. Many have been shot in the eyes. One of the lions adorning Qasr al-Nil Bridge, which leads to Tahrir, spots a bandage over one of its eyes as well.

Thirty-three people are estimated killed around the country with thousands more injured or arrested. Among those arrested were three American students accused of throwing Molotov cocktails although they were actually delivering medical supplies. Fortunately, many Egyptians have become inured to the lies of their government from the roughly 12,000 civilians sentenced in military kangaroo courts since the fall of the Mubarak regime in February. Most of them were peaceful protesters, bloggers and other activists charged with crimes such as “insulting the regime.”

The focus of their anger is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s military interim government, and its head, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi.

Monday’s news that Egypt’s cabinet, which many Egyptians consider puppets of the military council, resigned did not lead protesters to disperse. The basic demand is to end rule by the generals and turn power over to an elected, civilian government. The military has repeatedly postponed elections and it is not yet clear if it is about to relent.

At the moment, the violence appears to have subsided although protesters are marching in ever greater numbers.

Egypt-Israel Relations Cool But Will Endure

Michael Mullen Sami Hafez Enan
American and Egyptian army chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen and Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan walk down the stairs of the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, June 8 (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

Tension between Egypt and Israel mounted in recent weeks as young revolutionaries in Cairo, apparently freed from a military regime which fostered amicable ties with the Jewish state, demanded retribution when several Egyptian security personnel were killed near the border with Gaza. Relations between the two neighbors have cooled since longtime president Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign this February. A resumption of hostilities after more than thirty years of peace seems highly unlikely though.

The unrest began exactly a week ago when seven Israeli civilians and one soldier were killed in a coordinated terrorist strike against southern Israel. Many more were wounded on a bus in the tourist resort of Eilat. The attackers had presumably tunneled from Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where they set up firing positions. When they fled, Israeli troops pursued them. What happened next varies with the account. In the process of killing the Palestinian militants, an Israeli helicopter or plane killed between three and six Egyptian soldiers or police. And Egyptians did not like that one bit. Read more “Egypt-Israel Relations Cool But Will Endure”

The Egyptian Army, No Friend of the People

The Egyptian army showed its true colors this week. On the first day of Ramadan, a day of celebration and peace if ever there was one, the army cleared Tahrir Square of the tent city that had controlled it since July 8 and arrested some of its occupants. This overt use of force against the revolution should persuade the people that the army is not their friend.

Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February under somewhat mysterious circumstances. After claiming that he would remain in power the night before, the veteran Egyptian president quickly disappeared to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces stepped in. It is possible that the army persuaded him to leave and equally possible that the power elites had planned this move to make the new government popular.

The army has paid lip service to the demands of the protesters but done little to satisfy them.

First, the families of the martyrs of the revolution, many of them camped out in Tahrir, have not seen justice. They are demanding restitution and getting the strong arm instead.

Second, as many as 20,000 of the peaceful revolutionaries jailed since the beginning of the uprising received trials lasting a few minutes and sentences lasting several years. The jailed youngster, including blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 26 year-old sentenced to three years imprisonment for criticizing the military, usually have had no access to proper legal counsel.

The people have been calling desperately for their release but the military has not been forthcoming. “Egypt’s military leadership has not explained why young protesters are being tried before unfair military courts while former Mubarak officials are being tried for corruption and killing protesters before regular criminal courts,” said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch.

The generals’ reliance on military trials threatens the rule of law by creating a parallel system that undermines Egypt’s judiciary.

Instead of trying the peaceful and innocent, Egyptians expected trials of the police, the thugs and the ancien régime. The police were the repressive hand of the government while Mubarak was in power and have lost most of their power since the revolution. Police and Interior Ministry snipers are responsible for the deaths of many of the protesters killed in the early days of the revolution. The youth fought back and repelled the police but the government had other tricks up its long sleeve. During the eighteen day demonstrations that brought down Mubarak, the government released a number of thugs from prison to attack the people. They burst into Tahrir Square on the Day of the Camels, riding camels and horses into the area and wielding swords and sticks. After the police fled, the thugs went to every neighborhood to terrorize the people into begging the police to come back. Instead, the people banded together to protect themselves and their families.

The corrupt ministers of the old government, too, are perceived to have been protected since the fall of Mubarak. Demonstrators demanded a complete overhaul of the Interior Ministry and were given a reshuffle. The people want justice, which to them means the trial and sentencing of the police, the thugs and the thieves, and they want their money back. Thus far, they have not found it.

Fourth, the ever present Palestinian question was supposedly answered when Egypt’s government announced in May that it would open the Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip, providing some relief to the Palestinians trapped in the territory. Both Israel and Egypt have imposed a strict blockade of Gaza since 2007 when Hamas took it over. Restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza have eased slightly but progress has been minimal. All the real demands of the protesters have gone unheeded.

The army will do its best to ensure that the privileged position beyond the control of civilian government that it has always maintained remains protected. For the past several months, volunteers have stood at every entrance to Tahrir Square, checking passports for anyone who might be a known thug. They were able to enter the square once or twice nonetheless, with violent results.

On Monday, the army seemed to usher them in with the soldiers. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that “military police, Central Security Forces and civilian supporters” destroyed the sit in that had characterized the heart of Cairo for weeks. Perhaps the paper did not want to editorialize but it is probable that the “civilian supporters” were the very thugs that have tried to wreck the revolution since the Day of the Camels.

At last count, the military and its supreme leader, General Mohamed Tantawi, enjoyed broad support among the Egyptian people. This move may sour the belief that the army is a friend of the revolution. Either way, Egyptians have no reason to continue to trust their government or end the demonstrations of the ongoing revolution.