'Retribution or chaos' stalls Egypt in a cycle of endless uprising

Continuing violence has meant Egyptains cannot enjoy the changes the revolution was meant to bring about.

In the days before the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, few Cairenes were eager to celebrate the achievements of the past two years. Based on recent experience, most braced themselves to count bodies, not blessings, ahead of the mass protests that were expected.

By the end of the day on Friday, the death toll was nine and over 250 were injured in cities across Egypt, including in Sharqiya where one of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party's headquarters was set on fire.

That would have been bad enough, but the anniversary was immediately followed by the Port Said verdict on Saturday. Twenty-one defendants who were standing trial for the killing of 74 football fans in a Port Said sports stadium riot last February were sentenced to death by hanging.

Hard-core fans of Cairo's Al Ahly, known as Ultras, saw the verdict as a triumph. As an organised group of rowdies, the Ultra's presence at political rallies and their aggressive threat on the streets has cast them as an opposition force in the events since the 2011 uprising.

Last week, as the trial was nearing its end, the Ultras staged roving protests throughout the capital, burning tyres to block thoroughfares and spray-painting warnings of "retribution or chaos" in Cairo's metro stations.

After the verdict on Saturday, supporters of Port Said's Al Masry club and families of the condemned stormed the prison where the defendants were being held. By nightfall, at least 31 people had been killed.

Some Egyptians say the harsh, sweeping verdict was timed as an appeasement of the Ultras and the opposition, a means of quelling whatever uproar the January 25 anniversary might have aroused. "This is politics, not justice," said a man in a Cairo cafe, echoing a common refrain.

Relief was nonetheless palpable in my downtown neighbourhood, with the belief that both the anniversary and the trial were behind us. Given events of the past two years, we should have known that respite would be short-lived.

It is worth recalling that the Port Said tragedy occurred while street fights were still raging after the first anniversary of the revolution. The mostly young, underprivileged men were attacking Cairo's interior ministry near Tahrir Square in January 2012 to demand justice for those killed in the uprising of the previous year and the subsequent series of clashes with interior ministry security forces and the military.

One theory, believed by many after the Port Said riot, was that the violence had been instigated by security forces to prove that Egypt was but a single step away from chaos. The tragedy effectively turned public opinion against the siege of the interior ministry. Others believed that Mubarak-regime thugs - the shadowy mercenary force that is still blamed for nearly every outbreak of violence - had instigated the attack.

President Mohammed Morsi frequently alludes to regime "remnants" that are responsible for protests and violence. In a speech last week, he blamed the country's stalled political and economic progress on these "counter-revolutionary forces".

Egypt's Islamist government is intent on portraying itself as the revolution's "protectors" given the climate of instability. This is particularly galling to its opponents, since civilians continue to be tried in military courts and, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, more journalists have been prosecuted for insulting the president during Mr Morsi's first 200 days in office than during Mubarak's entire 30-year term.

Mr Morsi's recent remark that the plummeting value of the Egyptian pound was "nothing to worry about" was another indication of the disconnect between the president's scripted confidence and ordinary Egyptians' daily reality.

Mr Morsi seems equally intent on ignoring the degree of disillusionment and anger felt by Egyptians nationwide, including many who voted for him. As protesters were fighting and dying in clashes on Saturday, the president tweeted his condolences, but to no one in particular.

His promise that "criminals will be brought to justice" seemed particularly disingenuous, considering that Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood supporters were among those implicated in fatal clashes in front of the presidential palace last month.

But retribution has become a recurring theme in post-revolution Egypt, and the Port Said verdict will be placed alongside Mubarak's June 2012 trial as an example of the revolutionary state's vaunted justice.

Those who were dissatisfied with Mubarak's life sentence can look forward to his retrial, which was recently announced by the state prosecutor (who was appointed by Mr Morsi in contravention of constitutional law), but many see this just as another round of bread and circuses sponsored by the state.

For now, the nation's eyes are on Port Said, where the armed forces have restored calm for the time being, but protests seem likely to continue in Cairo and other cities. Egypt's national defence council yesterday was considering declaring a state of emergency, which would again bring the army out in force from its barracks.

Many believe this is all part of the revolution - and the cycles of calm and outrage, accusations and flawed justice - that began two years ago. But this pattern has kept people anchored in the moment, unable to look to a future that the revolution was meant to bring about.

Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt