Egypt, Morsi struggle to quell political unrest

Anger over the perception that president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are attempting to monopolise power has been compounded the government's failure to revive the economy and reduce unemployment.

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Renewed protests in Egypt yesterday have stepped up pressure on Mohammed Morsi as his government struggles to quell growing political unrest without endangering its prospects for international financial backing crucial to improving the economy.

The protests that began last Friday on the second anniversary of the uprising against Mr Morsi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, have resulted in nearly 60 deaths and unprecedented shows of public defiance of the authorities, and raised fears of the country collapsing into chaos.

Anger over the perception that Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are attempting to monopolise power has been compounded the government's failure to revive the economy and reduce unemployment - a key trigger of the uprising against Mubarak.

Apart from the geographical spread and intensity of the protests in the past week, of particular significance is the lack of respect shown for state authority. Protesters fought pitched battles with police for days, cut off roads and rail lines, besieged government offices and police headquarters, and burnt or destroyed government property. At times, their chants against the Islamist president the Brotherhood departed from the usual "Leave! Leave!" to include profanities.

Nowhere was the rule of the state challenged more than in the three Suez Canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, where thousands of residents staged night marches in defiance of a curfew imposed by Mr Morsi.

Their action handed the embattled president an embarrassing loss of face and further undermined his authority seven months into his term.

Protesters in Port Said even waved "independence" flags of white and green - the colours of the local football team - and declared that they no longer wanted to be part of Islamist-ruled Egypt. A list of the city's demands drawn up by activists and handed out to residents on Friday yesterday was addressed to "Mohammed Morsi, president of the brotherly Arab Republic of Egypt".

While the city's secession is perhaps outright impossible, the emergence of such a notion underlines the depth of resentment at Mr Morsi's rule. Compounding the anger in Port Said was the death sentences handed out to 21 locals on January 26 for their part in Egypt's worst ever football disaster a year ago, when more than 70 visiting fans from the rival Al Ahly club in Cairo were killed in rioting in the city's main stadium shortly after the game ended.

More than 40 of the people to killed in the latest protests were from Port Said.

On the economic front, the slide of the Egyptian pound by nearly 10 per cent over the past month against the US dollar; a further slump in the vital tourism sector, with Christmas and New Year bookings a fraction of their normal levels; and the drop of foreign reserves by more than half to about US$15 billion from their level on the eve of the 2011 revolution, make a decision by the International Monetary Fund on whether to lend Egypt $4.8 billion (Dh17.63bn) particularly crucial. The fund's officials are scheduled to visit the country shortly.

The poor state of the economy coupled with the new political unrest is lending credibility to growing fears expressed by commentators and politicians that a "revolution by the hungry" may be imminent, given the rising unemployment and the drying up of investment.

With poverty widespread, and the gulf between rich and poor that grew in the Mubarak years and has not been addressed by Mr Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood subscribes to the principles of a market economy, many feel that such a revolution would not only bring down the government but also the entire state.

Egypt's army chief and defence minister, Colonel General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, surprised the nation on Tuesday with a warning of this precise scenario, saying the state would collapse if the political unrest crisis continued. His comments, made to military cadets, amounted to criticism of both Mr Morsi and the opposition. Col Gen Al Sisi's remarks gave no hint of a possible military coup, but did indicate that the military would not remain on the sidelines if things took a turn for the worse.

Mr Morsi's handling of the events of the past week have done him no favours. A day after the deadly January 26 clashes in Port Said, he made an angry televised address spoke to the nation during which he at times screamed and wagged his finger. He thanked the police for their handling of the crisis, which involved incidents of firearms being used on protesters. He also slapped the curfew and a 30-day state of emergency on the three Suez Canal cities, fuelling charges there that the central government was unjustly singling them out for reprisals.

On Wednesday, he left a seething nation behind to visit Germany where he assured his hosts that nothing happening in his country should worry anyone.

"What is happening now in Egypt is natural in nations experiencing a shift to democracy," he said.

He said there was no need to form a unity government, as demanded by the opposition, because a new government will be formed after parliamentary elections, expected in April at the earliest.

Adding insult to injury, on the same day Mr Morsi left for Berlin, his wife flew to the Red Sea resort of Taba on a private plane for a family vacation, according to airport officials.