PORT SAID, Egypt – President Mohammed Morsi invoked emergency powers in three cities Sunday night to stem riots that have killed nearly 50 people and raised questions over whether his Islamic-backed government can secure order amid sharpening political turmoil.
In a nationally televised address, Morsi shook his finger at the camera and warned, “Those who try to scare citizens, use weapons, block roads, throw rocks at the innocent, those who attempt to jeopardize the safety and security of this nation, we must deal with them with all force and firmness.”
He added that “everyone must know that state institutions in Egypt … are fully capable of protecting this nation.”
The emergency powers impose curfews for 30 days in the country’s most troubled cities: Ismailia, Port Said and Suez. The army deployed to the towns over the weekend after rioting and looting threatened businesses, public institutions and ports near the Suez Canal. But violence continued as gunmen roamed streets of closed shops and blowing garbage.
Seven people were killed and more than 600 were injured in Port Said on Sunday when police and unknown gunmen opened fire on a funeral procession for those who died in violence a day earlier. Clashes also erupted for a fourth straight day in Cairo, where protesters burned tires and blocked the 6th of October Bridge near a stretch of tourist hotels.
The latest wave of unrest began Friday on the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The violence intensified Saturday, when 21 soccer fans were sentenced to death in Port Said for killing rival fans in a riot last year. Their relatives attempted to storm the prison, clashing with police. At least 33 people died.
The new violence has raised concerns over whether the government can impose order and calm political passions before the economy collapses. The police, once the symbol of Mubarak’s oppression, have been accused of using excessive force and are increasingly the target of public rage.
Morsi’s decision to enact limited emergency measures raised fears among activists that the country would again slide toward martial law.
The armed forces issued a statement saying soldiers “will not fire one bullet toward any honorable Egyptian and will not confront any peaceful demonstrations or strikes.”
The intensity of violence has startled the country. Young men and boys have for months hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces. But the tenor has been changed by the increase in weapons, including machine guns, which have been smuggled from neighboring Libya.