Egyptian protesters clash with riot police near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, on Jan. 29. Intense fighting for days around central Tahrir Square engulfed two landmark hotels and forced the U.S. Embassy to suspend public services on Jan. 29. (Khalil Hamra / The Associated Press)
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PORT SAID, Egypt — Thousands of mourners chanting for the downfall of Egypt's president marched in funerals again Tuesday in the restive city of Port Said as the army chief warned the state could collapse if the latest political crisis drags on.
Army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's warning, his first comments after six days of rioting and violence across much of the country, appeared aimed at pressuring Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in particular but also his opponents to find some common ground and the worst political crisis to hit Egypt since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
So far, the military — which for months seems to have had an understanding with Morsi — has allowed him to deal with the crisis and on his orders deployed troops and tanks over the weekend in Port Said and Suez, two riot-torn cities along the strategic Suez Canal.
But it has been willing to go only so far, clearly reluctant to clash with protesters. Troops stood by and watched Monday night as thousands took to the streets in direct defiance of a nighttime curfew and a 30-day state of emergency declared by Morsi in the cities. Residents of the two cities and Ismailiya, a third city also under the emergency, marched just as the curfew came into force at 9 p.m.
The last time el-Sissi delved into politics was late last year when he invited political leaders to an informal gathering to ease tensions during clashes and protests at the time. The invitation was swiftly withdrawn and leaders from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood later suggested el-Sissi overstepped the boundaries by intervening.
"The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations," el-Sissi said, speaking to military cadets in comments posted on the armed forces' Facebook page.
He defended Egyptians' right to protest, while acknowledging that the deployment in the Canal cities put the armed forces in a "grave predicament." He said the troops must balance "avoiding confrontations" with protesters with protecting "vital facilities."
El-Sissi, whom Morsi last year installed in his post and as defense minister, also spoke of a "realistic threat" facing the nation as a result of what he called the political, economic and social challenges.
Tuesday night, the presidential office said Morsi would consider cancelling the state of emergency and the curfew or cut them short if security improved by next week.
The statement appeared aimed at defusing the wave of fury against the president in the three cities. The anger has escalated to a virtual rebellion that many worry could spread to other parts of the country. Already, protesters across much of Egypt are battling police, cutting off roads and railway lines, and besieging government offices and police stations as part of a growing revolt against Morsi and his Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood group.
At least 60 people have been killed since Friday.
In Cairo, intense fighting for days around central Tahrir Square engulfed two landmark hotels and forced the U.S. Embassy to suspend public services on Tuesday. The lobby of the five-star Semiramis hotel along the Nile was trashed when armed, masked men attempted to loot it amid clashes outside early Tuesday morning.
In Port Said, scene of the worst violence the past six days, thousands marched in funerals for six of the more than 40 people killed in the city's clashes since Saturday, chanting against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
"As long as the president's hands are stained in blood, he must leave," said lawyer Mohammed el-Assfouri as he stood outside the city's Mariam mosque where mourners prayed for the dead. A sign carried by one mourner said: "The independent state of Port Said."
Some of the demonstrators in Port Said on Monday night waved white-and-green flags they said were the colors of a new and independent state. Such secession would be unthinkable, but the move underlined the depth of frustration in the city. Tanks were fanned out in the city of some 600,000, located 140 miles northeast of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast and at the tip of the Suez Canal.
Morsi's opponents accuse Islamists of monopolizing power and failing to live up to the ideals of the pro-democracy uprising that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Critics say he has failed to tackle the country's massive problems, which range from an economy in free fall to surging crime, chaos on the streets and lack of political consensus.
El-Sissi's comments raised questions over the military's stance if the crisis continues to swell. The military formed the backbone of Mubarak's regime — and those of all presidents since a 1956 coup — and the generals stepped into rule directly after Mubarak's removal in February 2011. The military's nearly 17-month stint in power tainted its reputation in the eyes of many Egyptians who accused it of mismanaging the transition and carrying out human rights abuses.
The Brotherhood largely accepted military rule, seeing it as paving the way to the elections it would eventually win, bringing it to political power. But the relationship was contentious: Before officially handing power over to Morsi after his election, the generals tried to keep sweeping powers. Within two months, Morsi took back the powers, sidelined the top generals and handpicked el-Sissi as defense minister and head of the armed forces.
The wave of unrest has touched cities across much of Egypt since Thursday, including Cairo, the three Suez Canal cities, Alexandria on the Mediterranean in the north and a string of cities in the Nile Delta.
The violence accelerated Friday, the second anniversary of the uprising, with protests to mark the event turning to clashes that left 11 dead, most of them in Suez.
The next day, riots exploded in Port Said after a court convicted and sentenced to death 21 defendants — mostly locals — for a mass soccer riot in the city's main stadium a year ago. Rioters attacked police stations, clashed with security forces in the streets and shots and tear gas were fired at protester funerals.
The mayhem in Port Said was fueled in part by the anger and sense of betrayal that have been simmering in the city following last year's riot, the worst ever in Egyptian soccer.
Protesters and activists, meanwhile, are accusing the police of excessive use of force in dealing with demonstrators. Morsi, in their view, endorsed their tactics when he commended them in a short, televised speech on Sunday night when he declared the state of emergency and curfew.
In Cairo on Tuesday, the area around central Tahrir Square was relatively quiet for most of the day, but clashes between police and rock-throwing protesters intensified by late afternoon and continued into the night. On Monday, protesters and police battled each other in area all day and until late at night in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the 2011 uprising.
The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, said more than a 100 policemen have been injured in the central Cairo clashes since they started on Thursday. The only fatality in the capital in the six days came on Monday when a young man died of gunshot wound.
Early Tuesday morning, police foiled an attempted robbery by 12 masked gunmen at the Semiramis Intercontinental. The luxury hotel is one of the two caught up in clashes around Tahrir Square.
Security officials say the attackers looted shops in the hotel's small mall and smashed glass. They suspect the culprits are criminals who used the rioting outside on the street as cover. AP television footage shows protesters trying to arrest some of the thieves. By Tuesday, the shattered glass facade of the lobby was boarded up and only a few guests remained.
The nearby U.S. Embassy said on its website that it was closing public services on Tuesday because of the security situation.
Hendawi reported from Cairo. AP reporter Amir Makar contributed to this report.