(Originally published by The Economist.)
The Muslim Brotherhood, amidst widespread public anger, wanted to mark the second anniversary of Egypt’s revolution by planting 500,000 trees, helping a million hospital patients and renovating 2,000 schools. Instead, the country looks like it is falling apart. Tear gas swirled through the windows of the posh hotels surrounding Tahrir Square. Ten people were killed during anti-government protests in Suez. In Port Said riots sparked by a court ruling left 35 dead. On Sunday night, the president, Mohammed Morsi, declared a state of emergency in those two cities and Ismailia, promising that any further unrest would be dealt with even more harshly.
The past two days in Egypt looked at times like a slow-motion repeat of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak two years ago: the marches, the gas, the shouted demands to topple the regime, and a miscalculated response by the president (Mr Morsi took to Facebook and Twitter to express his condolences to the families of those killed). Hard-nosed Suez, where the first demonstrator was killed in 2011, again provided the spark. Protesters ripped down police shacks and set government buildings alight. The police killed ten of those protesting.
The unrest felt darker, more anarchic, than the uprising of 2011. The peaceful protests that began on Friday in Cairo to mark the two-year anniversary of the revolution by Sunday had been overtaken by the armed street battles in Port Said. In the coastal city at the northern mouth of the Suez Canal, 33 civilians and two police officers were killed after relatives tried to storm a prison housing 22 local football fans sentenced to death on Saturday over a bloody stadium stampede last year.
Blurry video showed prison guards popping up from behind their turreted towers to fire at the angry crowd, a few of whom were shooting back. The Port Said families are furious; their innocent sons, they say, have been wrongly condemned by a politicised court to avoid the chaos that would engulf Cairo if the victims of the pitch invasion—mostly supporters of Cairo’s Ahly club—were not avenged. The Ahly fans are equally furious; the massacre, abetted by the government, they say, must be punished, or they will take action.
The riots have revealed worrying signs of a state that is both absent and untrusted by the people. Two years of transition and seven months of Brotherhood administration have failed to restore a sense of accountability. The Port Said families took matters, violently, into their own hands because they did not trust the court. The Ahly fans threatened to do the same. Protesters in Tahrir Square believe that Mr Morsi has lied to them too often to remain in office. The opposition says it will boycott elections unless the president reviews the transition process. Who will lead Egypt out of its current crisis is unclear.