Egypt army chief warns state could collapse

PORT SAID, Egypt (AP) — Thousands of mourners chanting for the downfall of Egypt’s president marched in funerals again Tuesday in the restive city of Port Said as the army chief warned the state could collapse if the latest political crisis drags on.

Army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s warning, his first comments after six days of rioting and violence across much of the country, appeared aimed at pressuring Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in particular but also his opponents to find some common ground and the worst political crisis to hit Egypt since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.

So far, the military — which for months seems to have had an understanding with Morsi — has allowed him to deal with the crisis and on his orders deployed troops and tanks over the weekend in Port Said and Suez, two riot-torn cities along the strategic Suez Canal.

But it has been willing to go only so far, clearly reluctant to clash with protesters. Troops stood by and watched Monday night as thousands took to the streets in direct defiance of a nighttime curfew and a 30-day state of emergency declared by Morsi in the cities. Residents of the two cities and Ismailiya, a third city also under the emergency, marched just as the curfew came into force at 9 p.m.

The last time el-Sissi delved into politics was late last year when he invited political leaders to an informal gathering to ease tensions during clashes and protests at the time. The invitation was swiftly withdrawn and leaders from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood later suggested el-Sissi overstepped the boundaries by intervening.

“The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations,” el-Sissi said, speaking to military cadets in comments posted on the armed forces’ Facebook page.

He defended Egyptians’ right to protest, while acknowledging the deployment in the Canal cities put the armed forces in a “grave predicament.” He said the troops must balance “avoiding confrontations” with protesters with protecting “vital facilities.”

El-Sissi, whom Morsi last year installed in his post and as defense minister, also spoke of a “realistic threat” facing the nation as a result of what he called the political, economic and social challenges.

Tuesday night, the presidential office said Morsi would consider cancelling the state of emergency and the curfew or cut them short if security improved by next week.

The statement appeared aimed at defusing the wave of fury against the president in the three cities. The anger has escalated to a virtual rebellion that many worry could spread to other parts of the country. Already, protesters across much of Egypt are battling police, cutting off roads and railway lines, and besieging government offices and police stations as part of a growing revolt against Morsi and his Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood group.

At least 60 people have been killed since Friday.

In Cairo, intense fighting for days around central Tahrir Square engulfed two landmark hotels and forced the U.S. Embassy to suspend public services on Tuesday. The lobby of the five-star Semiramis hotel along the Nile was trashed when armed, masked men attempted to loot it amid clashes outside early Tuesday morning.

In Port Said, scene of the worst violence the past six days, thousands marched in funerals for six of the more than 40 people killed in the city’s clashes since Saturday, chanting against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

“As long as the president’s hands are stained in blood, he must leave,” said lawyer Mohammed el-Assfouri as he stood outside the city’s Mariam mosque where mourners prayed for the dead. A sign carried by one mourner said: “The independent state of Port Said.”

Some of the demonstrators in Port Said on Monday night waved white-and-green flags they said were the colors of a new and independent state. Such secession would be unthinkable, but the move underlined the depth of frustration in the city. Tanks were fanned out in the city of some 600,000, located 140 miles northeast of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast and at the tip of the Suez Canal.

Morsi’s opponents accuse Islamists of monopolizing power and failing to live up to the ideals of the pro-democracy uprising that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Critics say he has failed to tackle the country’s massive problems, which range from an economy in free fall to surging crime, chaos on the streets and lack of political consensus.

El-Sissi’s comments raised questions over the military’s stance if the crisis continues to swell. The military formed the backbone of Mubarak’s regime — and those of all presidents since a 1956 coup — and the generals stepped into rule directly after Mubarak’s removal in February 2011. The military’s nearly 17-month stint in power tainted its reputation in the eyes of many Egyptians who accused it of mismanaging the transition and carrying out human rights abuses.

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