By Maurice Chammah
“Don’t go to Port Said,” a security guard told me in February 2012, standing on a street corner near the train station in Ismailia, about an hour away, down along the Suez Canal. “It’s a dangerous city, filled with thugs.” He shook his head and looked resigned. It was just a few weeks after the news had come out of Port Said; news of a soccer game turned violent, of beatings in the stadium, of knives and swords and stones and fists and dozens of dead. As the country mourned, buses stopped running to and from Port Said and when people from the city traveled to Cairo, they would replace their license plates to avoid detection. The army sent a convoy of emergency food.
Port Said had always been isolated from the rest of Egypt. It’s a three-hour drive from Cairo and over fifty kilometers from the more thickly settled delta of the Nile river, hung out on the rounded corner where the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean sea. But at that point, with the rest of the country blaming the city’s residents for the soccer game deaths, that isolation developed an icy edge. Some graffiti spotted in Aswan even accused the city of consorting with enemies. “What is the capital of Israel?” it read. “Port Said.”
Residents of the city felt ostracized and bitter. Graffiti on one wall in Port Said encapsulated the sense of horror and confusion, reading simply, “My friend died while cheering.”
When I spent a week there last March, few people were shopping. The cafes were quiet. At the military museum, in front of a display celebrating the heroism of the city during the 1956 war, a young man told me that Mubarak-paid thugs had posed as Port Saidi soccer fans at the game, and had ultimately killed the fans. “It was not the People of Port Said. It was a conspiracy,” he told me, stretching his hand towards the diorama. “We defended ourselves from the French, the British, and the Israelis, like you see here. Why would we kill other Egyptians?”
Now, a year later, in a new political moment, the isolation has produced a different effect entirely. After verdicts for the soccer game murders were handed down last weekend, Port Said and the other two cities that dot the Suez Canal, Ismailia and Suez, began rioting. Cairo followed suit, uncorking a sense of dissatisfaction with Morsi that had been percolating for weeks.
The secular parties and activist groups, though small in Egypt, benefited from a growing distrust of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and their attempts to dominate the constitution-writing process. Their secularism, in this case, was not so much a deeply held ideology so much as a suspicion of a leader who, in his secrecy, reminded them of the one they kicked out two years before.
Port Said, once the pariah, is now the vanguard. As the protests turn to street battles, Port Said’s traditional independence from the rest of the country is coming out in a way it never has before. President Morsi has called for a month of emergency law, which gives police extra-legal powers and was used by Mubarak for decades to crush his own movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. The protesters are responding by shouting “The people want the state of Port Said!” Morsi, who had so long defied Mubarak, was now imitating him.
The police are firing on protesters. Somebody has fired on police, though similar reports have proved false in the past. Still nobody knows exactly what is happening aside from the chaos. The Egyptian press, it should be noted, has a weak presence outside of Cairo and the international press has nearly none. We have a lot of war-scene details and the increasing sense that Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez are effectively out of the Morsi government’s control.
What is happening now is part of two histories. One is the ceaseless and numbing wax and wane of violence, politics, crowds, elections, dashed hopes and anger that has permeated the country since January 25th, 2011. The other one is the history of Port Said and the other two urban points along the Suez Canal, Ismailia and Suez, which for decades have played a crucial, if side role in the major shifts of Egyptian life.
Perhaps it was geographic destiny. Port Said, sitting on the Suez Canal and connected to international flows of people and goods, is a world away for Cairo and Egypt’s main source of contiguous unity: the Nile river. Along with Ismailia and Suez, the city was founded by Europeans as they built the canal on the backs of Egyptian peasants. That original sin has produced three cities—Port Said the standard-bearer among them—cosmopolitan, secular, and nativist in a resilient and complex balance. Today the wide streets of all three recall Paris just as the distrust of outsiders has the sharpness of an ex-colony. The French balconies are crumbling and no matter how wide the streets, they can still get clogged with cars. Port Said specifically has been the country’s synecdoche, the shining symbol of Egypt’s identity in good times and the hated pariah in bad.
Gamel Abdel Nasser’s most famous achievement in the 1950’s, as Egypt’s second president, was the nationalization of the Suez Canal to pay for a dam in Aswan. In response, Britain, France and Israel attacked Port Said and to this day old Port Saidis will tell you all about how the city’s inhabitants, with poor support from the army, fought back, pouring boiling water on invading troops and waging gun battles in the streets. For years afterward, Nasser talked about Port Said as the country’s outstretched fist against outside aggression. His cultural machinery produced films and songs extolling the city with lyrics like, “We were fire that ate their armies. Fire that says, ‘Do you want more?’ And we overcame; their disgrace is still memorialized in the soil of Port Said.”
In the 1970’s, as Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat steered Egypt towards world market capitalism, he made Port Said a duty free zone, meaning that yet again it could serve as the mantle of broader national initiatives. President Mubarak rolled some of the lenient tax policies back in 1999, after a clothing vendor attacked him with a knife, “lightly wounding” his arm before being shot down by security guards. The local economy suffered. As a result of the slights, Port Said became one of the more intense centers of the 2011 revolution.
Now, the city, along with Ismailia and Suez, is reclaiming its role by turning local anger against the court rulings, into national anger against Morsi and a constitution that has slowly produced more and more indignation amongst Egypt’s secular class. Although the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Ismailia in the 1920’s, the canal cities have always been strongly secular compared with the rest of the country. That had never been quite so clear until Morsi’s election, since all of his predecessors have been openly secular and antagonistic to the Brotherhood.
Being far from Cairo has led many of Egypt’s far-flung provinces to a stronger political affiliation with Islamic parties, and it was the rural areas that brought Morsi and the much more extreme Salafi parties to power in the elections. Port Said and the canal cities, however, swing the opposite direction. Their labor unions are strong. Their economies rely on tourism and foreign trade, both of which are perceived to be more in peril with Islamist leaders. In the elections over the last year and a half, they have tended to support secular and liberal candidates. They even voted for Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s former minister, over Morsi in the final round of presidential polling.
And so as the country now deals with whether the promise of Islamism was the right antidote to the amoral freefall of Mubarak’s decades, it will play out on the frontier, in Port Said and the canal cities, where vaguely secessionist tendencies are allowed to fester. That’s not specific to Egypt, of course. Peripheral regions, especially when economically independent, often develop a sense of political independence. I’ve certainly noticed it in my native state, Texas.
But the details are always unique. Over the last few days, there have been cars spotted whose owners replaced their license plates with ones reading “The Republic of Port Said.” A man at a funeral over the weekend told a reporter for the New York Times that Morsi’s call for emergency law “doesn’t apply to Port Said” because “we don’t recognize him as our president. He is the president of the Muslim Brotherhood only.”
A curfew has been called from 9pm to 6am in Suez, Ismailia, and Port Said for the next month, but at least 10,000 people are already defying it, shouting “The curfew is gone you sons of bitches” and “No to the Brotherhood, no to the Salafis! Egypt belongs to all Egyptians!” In Suez, musicians are playing simsimiya music, a genre I wrote about recently, with rollicking percussion and lyrics celebrating the 1956 war and the city’s resilience. There is no “God is most great” or “Islam is the solution.”
Apparently one picture has been circulating of a man who looks strikingly like Morsi standing among the protesters. In the canal zone, the chaotic, fragile looking glass of Egypt’s recent history, even Morsi defies Morsi.
Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com. He writes regularly for The Revealer.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.