Fears in Egypt as protests close part of Port Said

(Originally published by the Times.)

Evan Hill and Muhammad Mansour

Demonstrators angry over the killing of civilians in Port Said blocked entry to the city’s East Port today, suspending work at a crucial international shipping point which earns Egypt’s government millions of pounds per day.

Hundreds of protesters massed at the port’s entrance after the military attempted to remove a small group of picketers who had gathered on Tuesday night.

The protesters prevented more than 2,000 workers from entering the port, which houses the Suez Canal Container Terminal and is the principal facility for transferring containers from ship to ship at the northern mouth of the Canal.

The port blockade came on the fourth straight day of widespread civil disobedience in Port Said, where protesters have staged large marches and initiated strikes at several administration offices.

Residents erupted in fury after police killed more than 40 people last month following protests and armed street battles after Cairo court sentenced local football fans to death for their role in deadly a 2012 pitch invasion.

The unrest has not blocked shipping in the Canal, but the picket lines at the East Port halted container transfer work on at least five ships and has raised fears of further disruption to international trade.

The protest is believed to be costing the Egyptian government around £4.85 million for every day of disruption, said Hisham Salama, the port’s general director.

Mr Salama said the East Port services five to six ships every day and that the vessels could still load and unload at the functioning West Port if their owners chose to do so.

However, he cautioned that the growing unrest was threatening to do long-lasting damage to the canal’s reputation and economy.

“[The protest] means investments will escape from the country, especially as there are competitive ports in Cyprus and Haifa, and this is considered to be dangerous,” he said.

Port Said’s economy has declined since the 2011 revolution and has worsened since more than 70 people were killed after a pitch invasion at a football match last year.

On January 26, a Cairo court sentenced 21 Port Said residents to death for their role in the riot, setting off days of furious protests and armed street battles in which more than 40 people died.

Magdy Kamal, the head of the Port Said Investors Group, told Egyptian television channel ON TV on Monday that the unrest in the weeks since the death sentences had cost the city at least £9.7 million.

President Mohamed Morsi declared a curfew and state of emergency in Port Said and two other cities along the Canal on January 28 in an effort to contain the turmoil, but residents openly defied his orders and the Army did not take action, raising questions about the ability of the already-weakened Muslim Brotherhood-led government to exert control outside the capital.

The canal generates around £3.27 million in revenue every year and has become even more crucial as the government’s reserves of foreign currency have fallen to emergency levels barely adequate enough to cover three months of imports.

Figures from the Suez Canal Authority showed that revenue dipped to £262.2 million in January, a 4.6 per cent decline from the previous year which analysts attributed to unrest.