Military chief: Egypt's clashes threaten state


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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 Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who also serves as defense minister, indicated that troops could be pressed into action soon, analysts said. But it remained unclear on whose behalf the generals might interfere, underscoring the lingering 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," Gen. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 role 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 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Gen. 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. At the start of that uprising, anti-Mubarak protesters engaged in fierce street battles with police forces, before the latter withdrew from the streets and cleared the way for the military rule that continued for a year and a half after Mubarak's fall.

Mr. Haddad said this time would be different. "This time they're not running the game. They're obeying the orders of a commander in chief," he said, referring to the troops and Mr. Morsi.

Some analysts have speculated that Gen. Sissi, who was promoted by Mr. Morsi to head the military as other senior generals were forced out, is far more loyal to the Islamist government than the previous generals would have been. "A coup isn't possible at the moment or the medium term," said Khalil al-Anani, a Middle East scholar at Britain's Durham University.

Others aren't so sure. The military is fundamentally neutral, said retired Gen. Sameh Seif el-Yazal, a military analyst in Cairo. That the army took control of the country and faced its own opposition in Tahrir Square has left it deeply unwilling to do so again, he said. But if it does, it is unlikely to do Mr. Morsi's bidding. "Morsi cannot order the units and barracks of different forces in Egypt to do whatever he wants," Mr. Yazal said.

But the crisis, Mr. Yazal and others said, is likely to escalate. Opposition leaders have refused to participate in a dialogue with Mr. Morsi unless he meets their conditions of forming a national unity government and amending articles of the recently ratified constitution, which critics say has opened the door to a broader implementation of Islamic law.

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