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Egypt near collapse, top general warns leaders

Rioters ransack hotel; protests spread near canal

Protesters threw tear gas canisters back to riot police during one of several clashes in Cairo on Tuesday.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

Protesters threw tear gas canisters back to riot police during one of several clashes in Cairo on Tuesday.

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 feuding civilian 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.

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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 a rash of violent protests that has 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. Other Egyptians across the country appeared convinced that taking to the streets 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 Morsi’s own acknowledged missteps in facing the opposition. With cities in open rebellion and the police unable to tame crowds, the 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 Ismailia, the clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo spilled over into an armed assault on the historic Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, sending tremors of fear through the vital tourism sector.

With the stakes rising and no solution in sight, General 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.’’

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‘‘Political, economic, social, and security challenges’’ require united action ‘‘by all parties,’’ Sisi said in an address to military cadets that was 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.’’

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