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Anger courses through Nile Delta and Suez Canal, spelling trouble for Egypt’s Morsi

President Mohamed Morsi and his supporters often write off Cairo protests as the work of elites, but that accusation doesn’t hold water in the industrial heartland, now rocked by protests.

This city in the center of Egypt‘s Nile Delta bears the telltale signs of a protest-turned-fight with police – the street is littered with rocks, broken glass, and remnants of burned tires. The smell of tear gas lingers in the air, and boys collect the spent canisters that read “made in the USA.”

Such a scene has become familiar in the capital, Cairo, in the two years since a popular uprising unseated former President Hosni Mubarak. But now the unrest is spreading to the Suez Canal cities and into the fertile Nile Delta region north of Cairo.

While authorities often portray protests in Cairo as the isolated actions of out-of-touch elites – or, if they turn violent, the work of thugs – demonstrations in cities across the industrial heartland indicate a broader anger that could spell trouble for Mohamed Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected president last year and who has been the target of protests in recent months.

In Mansoura, a Nile Delta city of about 500,000, protesters accuse civilian members of the Muslim Brotherhood of attacking them alongside police and Mr. Morsi of using the police as a tool of repression, just as his predecessor, Mr. Mubarak, did. Their anger intensified overnight Friday night, after a local man was killed when a police vehicle ran him over.

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Activists are especially incensed that the Brotherhood, which was banned and persecuted under Mubarak, would now work alongside the same police force that used to arrest them and has not undergone any serious reform since the uprising against Mubarak.

“Morsi’s legitimacy has fallen,” activist Ibrahim Fadlom said Saturday, as a crowd chanted against the president at the man’s funeral. The crowd gathered outside a large mosque as the flag-draped body was carried down the steps and toward the cemetery.

“Morsi’s making the entire country Ikhwan,” said Mr. Fadlom, using the Arabic word for the Muslim Brotherhood. “We don’t acknowledge him as president, and we ask for his ouster. He should be tried just like Mubarak, because he killed those who voted for him.”

Accusations fly

Suez Canal cities have been rocked by more severe unrest. Security forces and protesters clashed for the third day today in Port Said, at the mouth of the waterway.

The city has had wave after wave of protests since a court sentenced 21 residents to death in January. (See a story on that earlier unrest in Port Said here) The center has largely been out of the control of police for over a month, and the Army is protecting state buildings and institutions. Witnesses there reported that the Army and police clashed in recent days – a significant escalation of the situation; previously clashes were between only locals and the police. Five people were killed on Sunday, including two police officers.

The Mansoura protests began more than a week ago, partly in solidarity with Port Said, partly out of anger over what they say is Morsi’s attempt to control government institutions, rather than implement promised reforms.

Residents began protests at a local government building, hoping they could convince employees to leave and go on strike. Their critics say they tried to force government employees to join the strike by shutting down access to the building.

Protesters say that Muslim Brotherhood “militias” attacked them with rocks and clubs outside the government building, much as they did in Cairo in December, when members allegedly attacked a protest at the presidential palace.

Several witnesses said they recognized Brotherhood members among those attacking the protest or directing the attacks, while others said they knew the attackers were Brotherhood members because of the way they looked. No one provided any proof for their accusations.

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Mohamed Taher, a journalist for Wafd newspaper in Mansoura, says he was taking photos and recording video of the protest yesterday when he saw local Muslim Brotherhood leaders directing a crowd of men to attack the protest. Mr. Taher said some of them attacked him and took his camera. His arm is in a fresh plaster cast from the assault.

Others said that Friday night, Brotherhood members took to side streets around the clashes between police and protesters and grabbed protesters who were fleeing from police, beating them or turning them over to security forces.

Morsi ‘will kill all of us’

The Mansoura police’s excessive use of force has only added to residents’ grievances and fueled unrest further – by now a familiar pattern in Egypt. The death of Hossam el Din Abdullah Abdel Aziz Khater, the Mansoura resident who was run over and killed by police, was no exception. The transfer of his body from the hospital to his funeral Saturday gathered an agitated crowd.

Mr. Khater was a worker in a nearby factory, where he earned about $22 a day. He struggled to make a living for his family, and wasn’t involved in the protests. He was simply buying bread near the scene when he was killed, said his uncle, Atef Ibrahim.

“He was a hardworking man. But in the eyes of Morsi, he’s a thug. Everyone who gets shot is a thug in the eyes of Morsi,” Mr. Ibrahim said after he directed bystanders to go find a wooden plank on which to carry the body to the funeral.

The government often accuses paid thugs of infiltrating or carrying out protests. “This is enough,” Ibrahim said of Morsi’s presidency. “He failed miserably. If he finishes his term, he will kill all of us. Is this part of the renaissance project?” he asked, referring to Morsi’s platform, which promised development of Egypt.

The crowd parted as Khater’s wife came out of the morgue, leaning on relatives as she wailed and wept. Someone held up his 1-1/2-year-old daughter, her curly hair pulled into pigtails and her face stained with tears.

‘No solution other than the street’

At the Muslim Brotherhood’s office in Mansoura, there is no sign on the outside of the building declaring its presence.

“Every time we put it up, they break it again,” says one man in the office.

The local Brotherhood spokesman, Sobhi Atteya, denies that Brotherhood members attacked demonstrators. The majority of Mansoura residents reject the protests because they hinder the economy, he says. And when protesters tried to shut down a government building using force, everyday citizens tried to stop them, he says.

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“The Brotherhood did not organize any of this,” he adds.

Mr. Atteya cast the protests as part of a broader strategy to sabotage Morsi’s presidency, and said the protesters’ ranks included hired thugs and members of the old regime. He also placed the blame for the violence on the political opposition and defended the police, saying they countered violent protests with tear gas, not bullets, that many of them had been wounded, and that the police vehicle hit Khater by mistake.

As night fell in Mansoura Saturday, clashes with police began again. Young protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the building where police were positioned, across the street from the headquarters of the Popular Current, an opposition movement started by former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. Police responded with tear gas.

The Popular Current’s headquarters was buzzing with energy as dozens of young people came and went. The smell of tear gas hung heavily in the air.

As the crack of police shooting tear gas echoed outside, local movement leader Abdel Meguid Rashed sat in a dingy office and explained their grievances. Morsi’s moves to assert control over government institutions while ignoring the demands of the uprising have turned the people against him, he said.

Mr. Rashed insists that participating in a political system now dominated by Morsi and the Brotherhood’s party won’t achieve the changes the people desire.

“There is no other solution than the street, because they closed all the political solutions,” he said.