Memory is implacable in Egypt’s three major cities on the Suez Canal: Port Said in the north, Ismailia in the middle and Suez in the south. There is still vestigial rancor from British colonial days; and there is a hardened sense of honor and neglect from being at the front lines of the wars with Israel in the 1960s and ’70s. Those emotions have often turned inward, against Egypt itself and whoever rules from Cairo. The first martyrs in the January 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak were from the canal cities, and their blood fed a nationwide cry for vengeance. Now President Mohamed Morsi finds his greatest popular challenge not in the huge urban centers of Cairo or Alexandria but in the three troublesome cities.
It was no surprise that Egyptian police lost control of Port Said almost immediately after a Cairo court handed down death sentences on Jan. 26 to 21 residents from the canal city for their alleged role in a February 2012 soccer riot that killed 72 people. In the aftermath of the verdict, relatives of the condemned laid siege to the local prison and would have breached it if Morsi hadn’t called in the army. At least 30 people were killed in the mayhem — a toll that easily eclipsed the police action visited upon the more cogently political protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The bloodshed simply contributed to the local sense of outrage and marginalization. As one Port Said resident screamed to the cameras of al-Jazeera: “We bled for this country! We died for Egypt’s freedom! Why is our blood so cheap now?”
The President imposed a 30-day state of emergency and nightly curfews in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia. The residents were unfazed; indeed they took to Morsi’s declaration of a 9 p.m. curfew with a rebellious gusto, making a point of scheduling their protest marches to start at 8:45 p.m.
For decades, the cities have been a tribe apart within of Egypt. The last British battalion left Egypt in 1956 but, way into the 1990s, citizens of Ismailia would mark an annual spring holiday by burning effigies — the older residents would sort of recall that burning man was supposed to be Lord Edmund Allenby, who led British forces in the Sinai in 1917 and 1918. The tradition persisted for so long that younger residents had no idea who “Limby” was and took to burning effigies of more modern enemies of Egypt, like Ariel Sharon.
Port Said is particularly known for a contrarian streak. In the 1990s — at the height of Mubarak’s dominance — the city continued to elect a string of opposition politicians to parliament. And when the country erupted on Jan. 25, 2011, against Mubarak, the martyrs of Suez contributed momentum and intensity to a struggle, providing impetus to Cairo-based revolutionaries who were struggling to establish control over Tahrir Square.
This time around, however, the anger in Suez, Port Said and Ismailia is a kind of street-based, almost anarchic ferocity that cannot be easily contained by the political slogans of Tahrir Square. Unlike the events of January 2011, the current uprising is partly sports fanaticism, partly generalized anger at feeling maligned by courts that the locals feel favor the followers of the Cairo’s soccer team. Nevertheless, the convulsions are the greatest threat to date to Morsi’s seven-month-old administration. The longer the violence persists — and the more new martyrs are created — the greater the likelihood that the emotions of the canal cities will spiral and spread. Clashes have continued for days in Tahrir Square and parts of Alexandria, but these remain fairly static and contained situations without the mass turnouts that would tip Morsi’s administration into crisis. The longtime Muslim Brotherhood official calculated that he could afford to look like a dictator when he granted himself nearly autocratic powers in late November in order to ram through a highly divisive constitution. What he can’t afford to do is look weak or unable to keep the peace.
That need to look strong was evident in Morsi’s Jan. 27 evening address to the nation. Gesturing angrily and nearly shouting at several points, he came off like an angry patriarch whose patience with his unruly children was wearing thin. In announcing the state of emergency and curfew for the canal cities, he offered an undisguised threat: “I’m willing to do a lot more for the sake of Egypt!”
Exactly what “a lot more” means remains an open question. As the crisis deepens, Morsi has come to rely more and more on Egypt’s armed forces. On Monday, Egypt’s Shura Council — the upper house of parliament that is serving as the entire legislative branch until elections scheduled for sometime this spring — passed an ominous resolution granting the military the right to arrest civilians around the country unconditionally. This potentially puts the Egyptian army back into a position of conflict with its civilians, with no real public indication of how the current military leadership feels about being thrust into this role. The army leadership’s refusal to attack civilians was the final straw that forced Mubarak from the stage two years ago.
For more than a year after that, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ran the country and managed to alienate almost every significant political force in Egypt. When Morsi succeeded in outmaneuvering his military rivals and sending Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi into retirement, it was taken as a welcome end to the era of direct military involvement in politics. Tantawi’s replacement, General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, has kept a deliberately low profile since then.
Morsi is not Mubarak. He was elected, albeit by a slim margin, and his main political support — the Muslim Brotherhood — has had the ability to marshal enough votes in national referendums to continue to claim at least a shaky popular mandate. But soon Morsi may not have the luxury of appearing in firm civilian control without calling upon the military. The police have officially lost control of Port Said, and the people there and in the other canal cities seem determined to force further confrontations with Morsi’s government. And the harsher Morsi reacts, the more he will be compared to the President that came before him. That is a parallel he does not want.