CAIRO -- As three Egyptian cities defied President Mohamed Morsi's attempt to quell the anarchy spreading through their streets, the nation's top general warned Tuesday that the state itself was in danger of collapse if the feuding civilian leaders could not agree on a solution to restore order.
Thousands of residents poured into the streets of the three cities, protesting a 9 p.m. curfew with another night of chants against Mr. Morsi and assaults on the police.
The president appeared powerless to stop them: he had already granted the police extralegal powers to enforce the curfew and then called out the army as well. His allies in the Muslim Brotherhood and their opposition also proved ineffectual in the face of the crisis, each retreating to their corners, pointing fingers of blame.
The general's warning punctuated a rash of violent protests across the country that has dramatized the near-collapse of the government's authority. With the city of Port Said proclaiming its nominal independence, protesters demanded the resignation of Mr. Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, while people across the country appeared convinced that taking to the streets in protests was the only means to get redress for their grievances.
Just five months after Egypt's president assumed power from the military, the cascading crisis revealed the depth of the distrust for the central government left by decades of autocracy, two years of convoluted transition and his own acknowledged missteps in facing the opposition. With cities in open rebellion and the police unable to tame crowds, the very fabric of society appears to be coming undone.
The chaos has also for the first time touched pillars of the long-term health of Egypt's economy, already teetering after two years of turbulence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. While a heavy deployment of military troops along the Suez Canal -- a vital source of revenue -- appeared to insulate it from the strife in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, the clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo spilled over for the first time into an armed assault on the historic Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, sending tremors of fear through the vital tourism sector.
With the stakes rising and no solution in sight, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister, warned Egypt's new Islamist leaders and their opponents that "their disagreement on running the affairs of the country may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations."
"Political, economic, social and security challenges" require united action "by all parties" to avoid "dire consequences that affect the steadiness and stability of the homeland," General Sisi said in an address to military cadets that was later relayed as a public statement from his spokesman. And the acute polarization of the civilian politics, he suggested, has now becoming a concern of the military because "to affect the stability of the state institutions is a dangerous matter that harms Egyptian national security."
Coming just months after the military relinquished the power it seized at the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, General Sisi's rebuke to the civilian leaders inevitably raised the possibility that the generals might once again step into civilian politics. There was no indication of an imminent coup.
Analysts familiar with General Sisi's thinking say that unlike his predecessors, he wants to avoid any political entanglements. But the Egyptian military has prided itself on its dual military and political role since Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser's coup more than six decades ago. And General Sisi insisted Tuesday that it would remain "the solid mass and the backbone upon which rest the Egyptian state's pillars."
With the army now caught between the president's instructions to restore order and the citizens' refusal to comply, he said, the "armed forces are facing a serious dilemma" as they seek to end the violence without "confronting citizens and their right to protest."
The attack on the Semiramis Hotel, between the American Embassy and the Nile in one of the most heavily guarded neighborhoods of the city, showed how much security had deteriorated. And it testified to the difficult task that the civilian government faces in trying to rebuild public security and trust.
Capitalizing on the melee between protesters and the police outside the hotel after about 2 a.m., at least a dozen armed men overpowered the guard at the hotel's door, looted the luxury stores in its mall and ransacked its lobby, hotel staff members said. The assailants carried knives, pellet guns and one semiautomatic weapon, a guard told Al Ahram Online, run by the state-owned news media.
When the police failed to respond to calls for help, the hotel staff resorted to Twitter, the favorite medium of the Egyptian revolt. "We are under attack! Several thugs have entered the Semiramis! Send help!" the hotel's Twitter account blared in capital letters.
"Revolutionaries" from the protest outside helped drive out the attackers, said Nabila Samak, the marketing manager who sent out the messages. The police finally responded about an hour and a half after the attack began, she said. The guests were relocated and the hotel closed.
Instead of taking a united stand in support of the law, Egypt's political elite bickered over who was to blame. On Monday, the main coalition of the opposition refused to join a committee Mr. Morsi has created with the promise that it would include opponents to review the government's measures to stem the chaos and to propose amendments to the Islamist-backed Constitution.
The president must "publicly admit his political responsibility for the Egyptian blood that was shed," Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist former presidential candidate, demanded at a news conference.
Mr. Morsi's allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, charged that the opposition leaders were looking for "political cover to justify the ongoing violent crimes their members are committing, including attempted murder, arson, burglary, sabotage and vandalism," as Ahmed Diab, a leader of the Brotherhood's political party, said in a statement on Monday. "But they cannot so fast wash their hands of the blood of Egyptians they shed in one way or another."
In a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Morsi's spokesman echoed the Brotherhood's charges by pointedly demanding that the opposition "clearly condemn violence, repudiate it and urge against taking part in it."
Talaat Abdullah, the public prosecutor Mr. Morsi recently appointed, went a step further, issuing warrants for the arrests of a spectral new activist group calling itself the Black Bloc, which Brotherhood leaders have begun calling the opposition's "militia."
The group's only confirmed act is its debut in an online video posted just a week ago depicting a group of masked figures. Declaring themselves part of a worldwide "liberation" movement, they said they intended to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, which it called "the regime of fascist tyranny."
Since then, rumors have swirled about masked figures in protests and clashes who may or may not be members of the Black Bloc. Masked men purporting to belong to the group have given interviews denouncing the Brotherhood. But in a second video posted on Monday by the same source the Black Bloc disavowed them. In a bizarre twist, the video charged that the supposed spokesmen were in fact from the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking to blame the group for unrest.
Without any public evidence that the group has done more than pose for a video, the state news service reported Tuesday that an investigation by the prosecutor had found the Black Bloc a terrorist group. What is more, the news service reported, prosecutors ordered the arrest of not only its members but also of anyone who would "participate in it in any form including wearing the costumes" -- outlawing, in effect, the wearing of a black mask.
Kareem Fahim and Mayy el Sheikh contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.