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August 30, 2014 / 4 Elul, 5774
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Egypt’s Systemic Collapse

The crisis in Port Said has exposed deep problems in Egypt's political system.
The Egyptian flag

The Egyptian flag

The Egyptian flag is red, white and black with an eagle in the center. Until quite recently, this flag has been a symbol of national consensus symbolizing that all citizens of Egypt, without regard to their political orientation, are sheltered together beneath the wings of the eagle. But this consensus may be starting to crack, and because of the complex nature of the crisis – constitutional, governmental and economic – a growing number of citizens in Egypt believe that the continued existence of the state as one political unit is doubtful. It seems that Egyptian society has been undergoing a corrosive process, ever since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” two years ago, which is undermining the sense of unity and shared destiny in the Land of the Nile.

This process began to be apparent after the unprecedented step taken by the Egyptian judiciary, when it sentenced to death 21 people in Port Said, a port city near the Northern opening of the Suez Canal, because of their involvement in the deaths of 74 people during a soccer game that was held in the city in February of 2012.

When they heard about the sentence, the enraged residents of the city burst into the streets in stormy demonstrations in which more than forty people were killed. It must be noted, however, that some of the fatalities were caused by a barrage of heavy gunfire at the mass funeral of 31 people that had been killed in previous demonstrations.

Disregarding any political consideration, the death toll in Egypt testifies to the fact that the value of life in this densely populated country has been depreciated. Ninety million men, women and children are crowded into the length of the Nile Valley and its delta, with a few concentrations along the canal and the coasts. About one half of them live below the poverty line, which is low to begin with, and about one third of them live in “unplanned neighborhoods,” some in wooden crates, without running water, sewage, electricity or telephone, without employment, without hope and without a future, but crime, violence, drugs and alcohol abound.

In demonstrations in Port Said, there are demands to secede from the state of Egypt. In a graphic illustration of these demands, the demonstrators waved flags where they had changed the color of the upper part of the flag from red to green, with a clear Islamist reference, and instead of the eagle, the name of the city “Port Said” was in the center.

The curfew that was imposed on the city did not help quiet stormy spirits either, and the masses burst into the streets despite the curfew. The police used tear gas against them but to no avail. The army took up a position near the government offices in order to defend them from the raging mob. Military officers claim that they did not open fire and they have no idea how forty people were killed. The Egyptian in the street, who knows the truth, doesn’t buy the story because he understands the matter well: if forty people were killed despite the fact that the army “didn’t shoot”, they wonder how many would have been killed if the army had actually had opened fire

A local group calling itself “The Port Said Youth Bloc” issued a declaration, stating:

We, the people of Port Said, declare the cancellation of Morsi’s legal status; he is no longer the president of Egypt. We call for masses of the Egyptian people to express their solidarity and join the people of Port Said who are being murdered in the streets by the armored Egyptian police before the very eyes of the Egyptian government. The people of Port Said will continue to stand strong even if, as a result of these demonstrations, all of its sons will fall. This expression, “the people of Port Said,” which is repeated a number of times in the manifesto, is an expression of the mood of the residents of the city.

The demand of the people of Port Said to secede from Egypt horrifies the heads of the Egyptian government, because if indeed they do actually separate the area of the Canal from the state of Egypt, the state will lose its main source of income – fees of passage paid by ships that traverse the Canal. If this should happen, considering the recent loss of tourism and foreign investments, Egypt will go bankrupt immediately.

There have been street riots in the city of Suez as well, in which four of the five police stations in the city were set on fire by the raging masses. And in Ismailia, 18 people were wounded in the riots.

In an attempt to calm the mood, Morsi declared a state of emergency upon three areas of the canal – Port Said, Ismailia and Suez – and imposed a curfew from 9:00 in the evening until 6:00 in the morning, for the duration of one month.

But the problem with this state of emergency is that the Egyptian public associates it with the Mubarak regime, which regularly imposed a state of emergency. Therefore the man in the street asks: What is the difference between Mubarak and Morsi? As a result of public pressure and the danger that the situation may deteriorate further, Morsi announced that he is willing to reassess the need for the state of emergency, which indicates a lack of decisiveness on the part of the president. But in Egypt’s current situation, they must have a decisive president in order to rescue the state from the multi-system mess that it has deteriorated into.

Evidence of the weakening of the Egyptian public system is apparent in the new phenomenon that began appearing in the streets recently, which is called in English a “black bloc,” where groups of youth wrap their faces in black, with some of them intensifying the effect by drawing frightening images on their face coverings. These groups of youth damage police vehicles, police stations and buildings of governmental institutions, with the intention of bringing down the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Various strange rumors are circulating about the political agenda of these groups, including, for instance, that they represent the remnants of the Mubarak regime, or that they are criminal gangs that are taking advantage of the confusion. There are even those who spread the rumor that they are agents of the Israeli Mossad, whose goal is to bring the Arab world to a state of total chaos.

In the political sphere, the “National Salvation Front” has been operating against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. This group is composed of a number of opposition parties and is led by Muhammad el Baradei and Hamdeen Sabahi . Because of the deterioration in recent days, President Morsi has been attempting to speak with them in order to establish a generally accepted national position, but the heads of the opposition parties refuse to meet with him. Their refusal is seen as an expression of “no confidence” in him and in the process that resulted in his election. Their demands are to establish a government that will include all of the public sectors, even the seculars, to change the Islamist-leaning constitution which grants too much authority to the president and to dismiss the attorney general.

They demand that “Morsi will take responsibility for the Egyptian blood that is spilled in the streets, that he will rein in the Muslim Brotherhood and make them subject to the laws of the land.”

LAST WEEK, in the extremely embarrassing condition that it currently finds itself, Egypt marked the two-year anniversary of the start of the revolution. During Mubarak’s time, the Egyptian people suffered from oppression and corruption, many lived wretched lives, but people were not killed in the streets in great numbers. There were some cases of police abuse which resulted in deaths, but this was rare.

Today, after the “democratic” revolution brought down Mubarak and his gang, the life of the Egyptian is far more miserable. Millions who, in the days of Mubarak, made a living from tourism are unemployed today, and foreign investments, which enabled many in the past to work and earn a living, have disappeared, resulting in even more people who today are unemployed.

The International Bank has conditioned its loans on subsidy cuts, principally for bread, but Morsi is afraid to raise the price of bread because of the street riots that will break out and because the people will accuse him of not being able to bring to their children even the most basic of foods. On the other hand, if he doesn’t cancel or at least decrease the subsidies, Egypt will go bankrupt; it will not be able to underwrite the subsidies, the price of food will rise and people will riot in the streets.

Last August, following the attack in Rafah in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed, Morsi dismissed the minister of defense, Tantawi, and a long list of senior military officers. The question was then raised: Why did Tantawi and the officers agree to be dismissed without objection? The answer was clear back then, and it is even clearer today: Since they knew what the actual economic situation in Egypt was, they were glad to hand the country over to Morsi, so that he would be associated with the collapse and not them. They were like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

Hopefully, the Egyptian people will find a way out of the complex crisis in which it finds itself, and that a group of leaders will emerge who will lead the rickety Egyptian ship to safe shores.

Originally published at Middle East and Terrorism.

About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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