Egypt recently experienced its most serious round of violence since the election of President Mohammed Morsi in June 2012. Violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces began in late January 2013 during demonstrations marking the second anniversary of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and his regime. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in various parts of Egypt decried the government's failure to fulfill the promises made during the revolution and even called for the resignation of the Muslim Brotherhood regime and Morsi. Ten people were killed and hundreds were wounded in these demonstrations.
The most violent riots took place in Port Said, at the northern terminal of the Suez Canal, after a death sentence was imposed on 21 people for their roles in the violence leading to the deaths of 74 soccer fans last year. After violent confrontations that claimed more than 30 lives, Morsi declared a 30-day state of emergency in the governorates of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, all of which are situated along the canal. Morsi's resolve did not calm tempers, however. The demonstrations continued the following weekend, with thousands of demonstrators in Cairo, Port Said, Alexandria and Ismailia returning to the streets.
These violent incidents led the opposition to toughen its positions. The chief opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, declared its refusal to participate in any national dialogue unless its conditions were met, including the resignation of the present government, amendment of controversial sections of the constitution and appointment of a new prosecutor-general. On the other hand, the NSF's appeal for nonviolent protest had no effect on the younger generation and exposed differences of opinion among the government's opponents regarding the manner in which the struggle is to be conducted.
The degree of violence in these clashes reflects the extreme tension that developed over the past few months between the Muslim Brotherhood government and the opposition regarding the drafting of a constitution and its ratification by referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood's determination to draft a constitution without the opposition's approval, including the president's attempt to assume certain absolute powers, galvanized the opposition's resolve.
The violent street demonstrations, however, are of economic and social origin. Since his election, Morsi has dedicated most of his time to reinforcing the Muslim Brotherhood regime rather than attempting to reach some agreement with opposition forces that would enable him to cope with Egypt's most pressing problems. The demonstrations reflect disappointment in Muslim Brotherhood government performance. Two years after the revolution, Egyptian citizens realized that their economic situation had deteriorated and their personal security declined, with no apparent solutions on the horizon. The intensity of violence in cities like Port Said, the least developed of all cities in the Suez Canal region, reflects a social and economic protest against extended neglect by the central government.
The extended upheaval in the streets and the lack of legitimacy ascribed to the Muslim Brotherhood regime prevent Morsi's government from taking the necessary economic steps to stabilize the Egyptian economy, which is burdened by poor growth and a massive budgetary deficit. Egypt needs loans from international bodies that would require it to cut subsidies and increase taxes. Such loans are not granted under conditions of internal instability. If no means of compromise is found between the Muslim Brotherhood government and opposition forces, public protests may well intensify and turn into "bread riots."
Relying on recent past experience, Morsi is waiting for the riots to die down as the demonstrators grow weary and the legitimacy of violent protest begins to erode. The persistence of violence in economic and social protests, however, may increase the Muslim Brotherhood's determination to take significant steps toward achieving stability, even at the cost of returning Egypt to a wholly dictatorial regime.
The most serious violence took place in three cities in the Suez Canal region. At this stage, however, these clashes will not have any immediate effect on economic activity at the Suez Canal and certainly will not engender its closing. Morsi's treatment of the Port Said riots, the declaration of a state of emergency and even the imposition of a curfew reflect the importance of the canal as a source of income that is significant to Egypt's shaky economy. In this context, the army's role should be taken into account. Egypt's defense minister, Col. Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, said recently that the conflict between political forces and the differences of opinion concerning government performance may cause substantive damage to Egypt's security and even to its integrity. Such declarations constitute a reminder of the political and economic role of the armed forces. Until now, the military judiciously avoided any statements that could be interpreted as political intervention. Now, however, it has clarified unequivocally that it will employ all means at its disposal to prevent damage to the Suez Canal.
The outbreak of violence all along the Suez Canal raises several pointed questions. At this stage, it is uncertain whether any deliberate attempt has been made to deny Egypt access to its only major strategic asset: the link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. This strategic target was the focus of interest of the great powers, at times demanding their military intervention. From the day the canal was opened in 1869, any attempt at a hostile takeover — especially if it were to succeed — would alter the balance of power in the Middle East and block the passage of third-party warships and merchant vessels, including Israeli ships.
Dr. Bosmat Yefet-Avshalom is a lecturer in the Israel and Middle East Studies Department and a researcher in the Center for Policy Studies, both at Ariel University.