CAIRO – Egypt’s military chief warned Tuesday of a potential collapse of the state after a fourth night of violent street battles between protesters and Egyptian security forces in Cairo and other major cities, heightening the prospect that the country’s military might be forced to intervene.
The warning from Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who is also defense minister, indicated troops could be pressed into action soon, analysts said. But it remained unclear on whose behalf they would intervene, underscoring questions about the scope of President Mohammed Morsi’s control over the armed forces and state institutions that once answered to Hosni Mubarak.
The continuation of this struggle between the different political forces could lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of coming generations, Sissi told military academy cadets, according to remarks posted on the armed forces’ Facebook page Tuesday.
At least 54 people have died and hundreds more have been more injured in five days of bitter clashes between anti-government protesters – many armed with rocks, Molotov cocktails and in some cases live ammunition – and the better-armed security forces.
On Tuesday, residents said tanks and other military vehicles had fanned out on the streets of Port Said, a strategic city of 600,000 at the tip of the Suez Canal, where the violence has been the worst.
Troops in Port Said and Suez stood by as thousands took to the streets overnight in defiance of a 9 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew and state of emergency declared by Morsi, an Islamist.
Egypt’s weak and poorly trained police force has struggled to quell the violence that started Friday, after protesters marched through Cairo and several other cities to voice their opposition to Islamist rule under Morsi on the two-year anniversary of the uprising that ousted Mubarak.
The anti-government frenzy spread to Port Said a day later after a court imposed death sentences on 21 locals for their alleged involvement in a deadly soccer riot last year.
Anger there, as in Cairo, spurred clashes, and then deaths, in a cycle that quickly roused thousands more protesters to participate and has expanded an opposition movement previously segmented along religious and class lines.
Many Egyptians, including the Islamists, say that the country’s abusive Interior Ministry forces – epitomized by the black-clad riot police used to suppress protests – have changed little since the Mubarak era.
In the days since the crisis began, even ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Morsi, have acknowledged that the police may have used excessive force.
The police force is largely dysfunctional and has been very hesitant since the revolution. It is not trained to deal with protests, said Gehad al-Haddad, a senior Muslim Brotherhood adviser.
That leaves the army – better-trained and more widely respected, Haddad and others say – as a potential referee if the crisis continues to spin out of control. But how the army would intervene remains a matter of debate.
Morsi declared a 30-day state of emergency and nighttime curfew along the Suez Canal on Sunday, a day after deploying the army to guard government installations in Port Said and Suez.
The moves failed to stop the violence, which spilled into a fifth day Tuesday, as protesters in Cairo battled police on a main bridge adjacent to Tahrir Square, and protests erupted in defiance of the curfew in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia.
Political analysts and activists interpreted Sissi’s remarks Tuesday as a warning to the perpetrators of violence, but also as a signal that the military could soon stage a broader intervention, as it did during the 18-day uprising in February 2011.