CAIRO — As three Egyptian cities defied President Mohammed Morsi's attempt to quell the anarchy spreading through their streets, the nation's top general warned Tuesday that the state itself was in danger of collapse if the government and opposition leaders could not agree on a solution to restore order.
Thousands of residents poured into the streets of the three cities, protesting a 9 p.m. curfew with another night of chants against Morsi and assaults on the police.
The president appeared powerless to stop them: He had already granted the police extralegal powers to enforce the curfew and then called out the army as well. His allies in the Muslim Brotherhood and their opposition also proved ineffectual in the face of the crisis, each retreating to their corners, pointing fingers of blame.
The general's warning punctuated violent protests that have dramatized the near-collapse of the government's authority. With the city of Port Said proclaiming its nominal independence, protesters demanded the resignation of Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, while people across the country appeared convinced that taking to the streets in protests was the only means to get redress for their grievances.
Just five months after Egypt's president assumed power from the military, the cascading crisis revealed the depth of the distrust for the central government left by decades of autocracy, two years of convoluted transition and his own acknowledged missteps in facing the opposition. With cities in open rebellion and the police unable to tame crowds, the very fabric of society appears to be coming undone.
The chaos has also for the first time touched pillars of the long-term health of Egypt's economy, already teetering after two years of turbulence since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. While a heavy deployment of military troops along the Suez Canal — a vital source of revenue — appeared to insulate it from the strife in Port Said, Suez and Ismailiya, the clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo spilled over for the first time into an armed assault on the historic Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, sending tremors of fear through the vital tourism sector.
At least 60 people have been killed and hundreds injured since Thursday in clashes between police and protesters angry over what they call Islamists' moves to monopolize power and failure to address the country's multiple woes.
In Cairo on Tuesday, rock-throwing protesters clashed with police firing tear gas for another day in battles that escalated after nightfall near Tahrir Square. The mayhem forced the nearby U.S. Embassy to suspend public services Tuesday, and the night before masked men tried to rob the neighboring five-star Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, trashing the lobby before being forced out.
With the stakes rising and no solution in sight, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister, warned Egypt's new Islamist leaders and their opponents that "their disagreement on running the affairs of the country may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations."
"Political, economic, social and security challenges" require united action "by all parties" to avoid "dire consequences that affect the steadiness and stability of the homeland," Sisi said in an address to military cadets that was later relayed as public statement from his spokesman. And the acute polarization of the civilian politics, he suggested, had now become a concern of the military because "to affect the stability of the state institutions is a dangerous matter that harms Egyptian national security."
There was no indication of an imminent coup. Sisi insisted Tuesday that the military would remain "the solid mass and the backbone upon which rest the Egyptian state's pillars."
The attack on the Semiramis Hotel, between the U.S. Embassy and the Nile in one of the most heavily guarded neighborhoods of the city, showed how much security had deteriorated.
In a news conference Tuesday, Morsi's spokesman demanded that the opposition "clearly condemn violence, repudiate it and urge against taking part in it."
Talaat Abdullah, the public prosecutor Morsi recently appointed, went a step further, issuing warrants for the arrests of a spectral new activist group calling itself the Black Bloc that Brotherhood leaders have begun calling the opposition's "militia."