Egypt shudders, with leadership nowhere in sight

When the head of Egypt's military starts darkly warning of state collapse, it's time to worry.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi

“The continuation of this struggle between the different political forces ... could lead to the collapse of the state."

Those were the words of Egyptian Army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to military academy students, in a speech posted online today.

When the Egyptian military warns of state collapse, it's time to start worrying. Though a coup is unlikely, that's always a subtext when senior officers start talking about those incompetent civilian politicians failing to safeguard the very state itself. And it's worrying enough that he might even believe it.

But the fact is that Egypt is now at yet another dangerously chaotic, polarized point, with at least 50 people dead from four days of clashes in Cairo and the main cities of the economically vital Canal Zone under a state of emergency, with soldiers on the streets. The formation of a national consensus about the future from the elections of the past two years? It never happened. Instead, Egypt today has a Muslim Brotherhood president and a Constitution bitterly opposed by the opposition.

A parliament? The results of that election, which the Muslim Brothers and their Islamist allies won, were annulled by the courts, with a fresh parliamentary election promised by the end of April. The political opposition? In as much disarray as ever. The street protesters? An amalgamation of soccer hooligans, political activists, self-styled anarchists in black balaclavas, and secular political parties with little uniting them beyond their anger at the state of Egypt and the leadership of President Mohamed Morsi.

While the outpouring of popular outrage has sent a message to Morsi, he's shown no signs of flexibility or creativity in responding to it. Secular politicians have brushed off his calls for dialogue, with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, saying the offered talks are a matter of "form and not content." That is, he expects any such talks to lead nowhere.

Little sensitivity

State television and Brotherhood leaders have denounced "thugs" and cried "anarchy," with little sensitivity to the various grievances fueling both violent mobs and peaceful protests. This week, Egyptians were treated to the irony of the Gama'a Islamiyah, a former terrorist group that helped inspire Al Qaeda (that group's current leader, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a former GI leader), praising Morsi's decision to declare a state of emergency and calling the violence "unacceptable." The GI spent much of the 1990s trying to destroy the Egyptian state with a campaign of assassinations and indiscriminate killings, culminating in the murder of 62 people, most foreign tourists, in the Luxor massacre of 1997.

Amid all this, events are trundling on in a way that says little good about how Morsi and the state security institutions that (nominally at least) answer to him are handling the situation. Egypt's economy has been delivered yet another blow after two years of them – recent events are only going to deter investors and tourists further – and it's hard to see how an International Monetary Fund loan seen as crucial to shoring up the plummeting Egyptian pound (down about 7 percent against the dollar in the past few weeks) could be approved amid all the chaos.

Last night, the Semiramis InterContinental Hotel on the Nile corniche in downtown Cairo was attacked for hours by armed thugs, one of whom was wielding a semi-automatic weapon. The staff's panicked calls to the police and the Army were ignored for hours. The hotel is within a mile of Tahrir Square, the US and other foreign embassies, and a slew of other five-star hotels and multinational offices. Here's how Ahram Online described the scene:

Ahmed Ibrahim, another InterContinental guard described 40 men armed with birdshot guns, knives and a semi-automatic weapon, approach the hotel around 2.30am. They succeeded in breaking through the hotel's fortified shutters. Ahram Online reporter saw electrical wire tied to the metal gates, clearly used to force the doors open. "One had a semi-automatic gun and started shooting inside the building, I was inside trying to hide and call the police, it was terrifying," Abdel-Wahab continues.

Some guests trapped in the hotel, locked themselves in their rooms to avoid the tear gas and bullets, as employees desperately struggled to evacuate the building. After the police failed to appear, Abdel-Wahab says, hotel staff phoned the army. "However they didn't arrive, they left us."

"It was terrible - I was scared to death," recalls Nabila Samak, Director of Marketing and Communications, who made the desperate calls for help from the hotel Twitter account. Samak added that Semiramis staff had even resorted to calling Egyptian TV talk shows to draw attention to their plight.

Yes, the hotel's director of marketing was reduced to issuing panicked calls for help via Twitter (for instance: "PLEASE SEND HELP! SOS"). Soldiers eventually arrived and no one was injured. But the hotel is now closed, and a message has been sent to potential tourists and investors alike that even in the heart of Cairo, the state is not up to the task of providing basic security at the moment.

Meanwhile, state TV has been creating a new bogeyman – the "Black Bloc," a shadowy new protest group that seems inspired in equal measures by the online antics and fashions of hacker collectives like Anonymous and Egypt's hardline soccer supporters groups known as "Ultras." The young men in black balaclava's have participated in some of the unrest of the past few days, but the public prosecutors order for the police and the military to arrest all members of the group today for their "terrorist activities" has more than a hint of scapegoating about it.

To be sure, the emergence of the group, defined entirely by anger at all forms of state authority, does say something powerful about the failure of Egypt's young revolutionaries to create a coherent political movement in the two years since Mubarak was driven from power. Ursula Lindsey writes: "The whole Black Bloc phenomenon is pretty silly. It's a symptom of the immaturity, lack of foresight and drift from peaceful (and seemingly fruitless) protesting to glamorized, indiscriminate, anti-authoritarian violence that has characterized a wing of the protest movement."

Not all protests are created equal. In the gritty canal city of Port Said, where resentment of state authority stretches back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the area suffered the brunt of Egypt's wars with Israel, the violence has largely been about a soccer riot last year that left more than 70 people dead. On Saturday, a court sentenced 21 people to death, most supporters of local club Al Masry, for their participation in the riot, touching off an attempt to storm the prison that left dozens dead. Kristen Chick wrote of the general sense of dispossession and fury among protesters there for us today.

One man pulled out an Egyptian flag and attempted to set it on fire. Some in the crowd tried to stop him, but soon, smoke was rising from the strips of red, white, and black. The crowd broke into cheers at a sight that would be unthinkable in protests in almost any other Egyptian city, where antigovernment protesters raise the flag as they battle with police.

Meanwhile, there was a little-noticed piece of evidence today of the changes the Brothers have wrought in the Egyptian legal system. Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Al Azhar who's been given a legal advisory role in the new Muslim Brotherhood Constitution, formally approved the death sentences of seven people, all tried in absentia, handed down by an Egyptian court last year. Their crime? Involvement in producing an online film clip that insulted the prophet Muhammad and Islam more generally. Most of those sentenced to death are Egyptian Coptic Christians resident in the US.

Though there's still a chance that the sentences will be overturned on appeal, the use of the death penalty to silence expression, however distasteful, sends another message about the direction Morsi is seeking to take Egypt.

This video is part of a series about the Egyptian revolution produced by Samar Media.

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