Egypt’s military chief warned on Tuesday that the political crisis sweeping the country could lead to the collapse of the state, as thousands defied curfews and the death toll from days of rioting rose to 52.
“The continuing conflict between political forces and their differences concerning the management of the country could lead to a collapse of the state and threaten future generations,” General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who is also defence minister, said on his Facebook page.
He further warned that the political, economic, social and security problems facing Egypt constitute “a threat to the country’s security and stability,” and vowed to defend vital infrastructure, including the Suez Canal.
Sissi’s warning comes as medics on Tuesday reported another three people killed in the violence sweeping Egypt, pushing to at least 52 the death toll from five days of clashes.
Two people died in fighting between protesters and security forces in the riot-hit canal city of Port Said, and one was shot dead in Cairo when protesters and police clashed near Tahrir Square, the capital’s iconic hub of protest.
On Sunday, President Mohamed Morsi imposed a month-long state of emergency and night-time curfews on Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez, the three provinces most affected by the rioting.
But witnesses said thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of the three Suez Canal cities Monday night in defiance of the curfews.
The protesters chanted slogans against Islamist rule in Egypt, “Fall, fall the rule of the guide (of the Muslim Brotherhood), referring to Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood.
Egypt has already deployed troops to Port Said and Suez provinces, at each end of the canal that Sissi said the army would defend.
“The deployment of the army in Port Said and Suez aims to protect strategic infrastructure, especially the Suez Canal, which we will not allow to be harmed,” Sissi said.
– ‘Protests must be peaceful’–
But he said the army’s task was difficult.
It does “not want to confront Egyptian citizens who have a right to protest” but it “has to protect vital institutions.”
“That is why protests must be peaceful.”
With the unrest showing no signs of abating, Egypt’s Islamist-dominated Senate ratified on Monday a law granting the armed forces powers of arrest.
Opposition groups and disgruntled Egyptians accuse Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists of monopolising power and say the revolution failed to reach its goals of social justice.
The violence first erupted on Thursday. It gained momentum on Friday, when protests marking the second anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak turned into clashes around the country.
On Saturday, violence exploded in Port Said after a court sentenced to death 21 supporters of a local football club for their involvement in a deadly soccer riot last year.
Soon after the verdicts, rioters attacked police stations and the prison where the defendants were being held, sparking clashes with security forces that left 42 people dead at the weekend.
Fighting between police and anti-Morsi protesters have also broken out daily in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, but the capital was calm on Tuesday morning.
The crisis looks set to deepen after the National Salvation Front, a coalition of mainly liberal and leftist movements, called for countrywide protests on Friday after rejecting an offer from Morsi to hold talks.
“We will not participate in dialogue that is empty of content,” leading dissident Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters after a meeting of the NSF.
The bloc wants the formation of a national salvation government and the amendment of the Islamist-drafted constitution, before it agrees to any talks.
An NSF statement called “on the Egyptian people to take to the streets in all Tahrir Squares (across the nation) on Friday to stress the sanctity of the blood of the martyrs and achieve the goals of the revolution.”
The unrest highlights a deep split between Morsi’s mainly Islamist allies, and an opposition of leftists, liberals, Christians and Muslims calling for freedoms and the separation of the state from religion.
On Monday, the White House condemned the unrest and urged Egyptian leaders to make clear violence is never acceptable.
“We strongly condemn the recent violence that has taken place in various Egyptian cities. We look to all Egyptians to express themselves peacefully and look to Egyptian leaders to make clear that violence is not acceptable,” it said.