DEFIANT: Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi march this week despite a nighttime curfew in the city of Suez. Picture: REUTERS
DEFIANT: Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi march this week despite a nighttime curfew in the city of Suez. Picture: REUTERS

CAIRO — Egypt’s army chief said on Monday political strife was pushing the state to the brink of collapse — a stark warning from the institution that ran the country until last year as Cairo’s first freely elected leader struggles to contain bloody street violence.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a US-trained general appointed by President Mohamed Mursi last year to head the armed forces, said one of the primary goals of deploying troops in cities on the Suez Canal was to protect the waterway that is vital for Egypt’s economy and world trade.

Gen Sisi’s comments followed 52 deaths in the past week of disorder and highlighted the mounting sense of crisis facing Egypt and its Islamist head of state who is struggling to fix a teetering economy and needs to prepare the country for a parliamentary election in a few months that is meant to cement the new democracy.

Violence largely subsided on Monday, although some youths again hurled rocks at police lines in Cairo near Tahrir Square.

It seemed unlikely that Gen Sisi was signalling the army wants to take back the power it held for six decades since the end of the colonial era and through an interim period after the overthrow of former air force chief Hosni Mubarak two years ago. But it did send a powerful message that Egypt’s biggest institution, with a big economic as well as security role and a recipient of significant direct US subsidies, is worried about the fate of the nation, after five days of turmoil in major cities.

"The continuation of the struggle of the different political forces … over the management of state affairs could lead to the collapse of the state," said Gen Sisi, who is also defence minister in the government Mr Mursi appointed.

Gen Sisi said the economic, political and social challenges facing the country represented "a real threat to the security of Egypt and the cohesiveness of the Egyptian state" and the army would remain "the solid and cohesive block" on which the state rests. He was named by Mr Mursi after the army handed over power to the new president in June. He previously headed military intelligence and studied at the US Army War College.

Diplomats said that Gen Sisi was well known to the US — which donates $1.3bn in military aid each year, helping reassure Washington that the last year’s changes in the top brass would not upset ties. Almost seven months after Mr Mursi took office, Egyptian politics have become deeply polarised.

Opponents spurned a call by Mr Mursi for talks on Monday to try to end the violence.

Instead, protesters have rallied in Cairo and Alexandria, and in the three Suez Canal cities — Port Said, Ismailia and Suez — where Mr Mursi imposed emergency rule.

On Tuesday, thousands were again on the streets of Port Said to mourn the deaths of two people in the latest clashes there, taking the total toll in Mediterranean port alone to 42 people. Most were killed by gunshots in a city where weapons are rife.

Residents in the three canal cities also took to the streets.

The president’s spokesman said on Tuesday that the 30-day state of emergency could be shortened, depending on circumstances.

In Cairo, police again fired tear gas at stone-throwing youths in a street near Tahrir Square, the centre of the 2011 uprising.

"Egyptians are really alarmed by what is going on," said Cairo-based analyst Elijah Zarwan, adding that the army was reflecting that broader concern among the wider public.

"But I don’t think it should be taken as a sign that the military is on the verge of stepping in and taking back the reins of government," he said.