PORT SAID — In the ongoing protest movement that has gripped the city of Port Said for the past month, no Egyptian flags were raised.
Instead, a green, white and black flag dominates marches across the coastal city, replacing the red in the Egyptian flag with the green of Port Said’s Masry football club’s flag. The club is at the center of the court case that sparked the city’s most recent wave of protests.
“Here is the flag of Port Said. This is our country, and we’re willing to die for it,” one demonstrator shouted during last Friday’s protest.
Eerily quiet streets and metal bars blocking shop windows during the day signaled the success of the civil disobedience movement announced in the city last week. But the specter of violence that accompanied Mahalla and Mansoura’s recent calls for civil disobedience was absent.
If anything, the exercise of disobedience lent the city a sense of serenity.
Rejecting violence, the palpable anger of the city’s residents has instead been channeled toward an amplified sense of local solidarity and an increased resentment toward the state, and, at times, even society.
Port Saidis come first
Thousands marched across the city Friday, winding through the same streets where people were killed with live ammunition in violent clashes last month, some pointing to bullet holes that pierced kiosk fronts.
The politically affiliated and the unaffiliated, women and youth, as well as Masry football supporters took part in the protest, calling for the rights of those who were killed, and also for the independence of Port Said.
“We will free Port Said, our brothers were killed,” the crowd chanted.
City residents say the state of mass protests and collective solidarity it has experienced in the last week is unprecedented, even in the first days of the 25 January revolution.
While their participation in past revolutionary waves may not have been strong, protesters say the fight became personal when their people were killed in the street.
“We are in the street because of feelings of injustice. Every household in Port Said is suffocating. People are dying of rage and grief, and [the president] is ignoring us. The whole country is ignoring us as if we are nothing,” said Mervat Fouda, a teacher participating in the protest.
Beyond the feelings of marginalization common outside Cairo, Port Said residents feel the city has been singled out for oppression since the days of former President Hosni Mubarak.
“People tell us we’re all Egyptians. No, I am not Egyptian; I am Port Saidi first and foremost,” said 22-year-old Mahmoud Hassan, a recent university graduate. “They have to understand that our first concern now is Port Said. We will defend it even if we have to take up arms and kill other Egyptians.”
Feeling that revolutionaries have aligned against them, he said he doesn’t feel any sense of belonging to Egypt’s revolution. Instead, he considering the protest to be Port Said’s own revolution.
“Port Said was insulted in Tahrir Square. I don’t identify with that square and I’m not proud of a revolution that insults my country,” he said, asserting that his country is Port Said.
In Martyrs Square, the protest movement’s center and stage for a sit-in in its second week, a banner offered a vivid image of the feeling of disassociation and resentment residents harbor toward the rest of the country.
The sign featured the red symbol of Port Said with two olive branches and an anchor in between in the form of a man pushing away the Egyptian flag. It read, “Get away from me and leave me alone, if you will only be unjust to me.”
The words “free and independent Port Said” were written above another picture of the city’s symbol.
The recent wave of unrest was sparked last month when security forces resorted to live bullets to quell protests denouncing a court verdict in which 21 people, mostly Masry football fans, received death sentences. They had been sentenced for killing at least 72 people during post-match violence at Port Said Stadium last year.
Protesters’ demands include the prosecution of the interior minister and those responsible for the post-verdict violence and deaths, the retrial of those who received death sentences, and the prosecution of the Port Said governor and security chief for failing to protect the people.
Protesters believe the court verdict and death sentences were politically motivated — a result of political pressure applied by Ahly Ultras, hardcore Cairo-based football fans.
“Is their blood precious, while ours is cheap?” Sayed Mansour, a day laborer, asked.
Offended that the president has scheduled parliamentary elections despite the city’s current situation, many residents reject the polls and insist they won’t allow preparations to take place.
“There will be no election in this state,” one protester shouted, referring to Port Said. “It’s only a matter of time til we get our independence. They can have their election over there in their country, Cairo. We have nothing to do with them now — there’s blood between us.”
Official reactions fall short
The official response to the disobedience thus far has only further fueled anger.
“After one week of uprisings — of us pouring our hearts out in the streets, only to be ignored and not offered a single apology — [President Mohamed Morsy] thanks those who killed our brothers,” said Ateyat, an education employee, as she led the chants, banging a pan with a piece of metal.
Days into the disobedience campaign, Morsy announced the government would draft a law to return the free trade zone to Port Said, which would revitalize commerce. He said LE400 million would be allocated for the three Suez Canal cities, Port Said, Suez and Ismailia.
However, the financial concessions, coupled with the lack of response to protesters’ demands, have only elicited more frustration.
“I have a proposition for Morsy: Why doesn’t he take the LE400 million and give us his three children? Would that satisfy him?” asked Electricity Ministry employee Ahmed Gamal, insisting that retribution for the martyrs remains a non-negotiable demand.
In a pre-recorded interview aired behind schedule early Monday morning, Morsy responded to a question on civil disobedience, dismissing it as acts of thuggery and claiming protesters forced employees and shops to join the movement against their will.
A protester who works in small investments says what Port Said’s people want, above all, is to feel heard.
“The buildup of oppression is now approaching the point of explosion. I’m telling the president to expect the worst,” he said. “We only want him to give Port Said 48 hours of his time. Look at us, listen to every person with a grievance for five minutes — otherwise, the country will fall apart.”
Disobedience takes toll on city, but not people
The only people seen in Hameidy, one of the main markets in Port Said, on Friday were the vendors sitting idly in front of the shops. In the absence of clients, some shops were closed, while other shop owners said they opened only to keep each other company, after growing bored of staying home for most of the past month.
Despite their losses, the merchants still support the disobedience movement. They blame their current state on the government’s callous indifference.
“Each one of these booths feeds more than a dozen families that haven’t had any income in a month,” one merchant said. “If Morsy doesn’t deal with the crisis, they will have to turn to stealing or dealing drugs.”
The response to this most recent call for disobedience has massively exceeded similar calls over the past two years.
Government employees uncharacteristically responded to the call, shutting down many government offices, while schools closed for more than a week.
Different shops and syndicates put up banners around the city announcing their solidarity with the people’s demands, and fliers urged people not to pay their bills “because our money is used to buy weapons that the Interior Ministry uses to kill our sons.”
Though naval traffic was allowed to flow to the critical Suez Canal, many canal-associated companies responsible for shipping and maintenance joined the disobedience movement, and one of Port Said’s two ports shut down. The second issued a statement announcing it would remain operative due to its importance, saying it stands in solidarity with the city’s demands.
While the disobedience movement has gravely affected the economy, the security situation in Port Said is remarkably stable. Despite the absence of police, no incidents of thuggery were reported during the week, as citizens have taken to maintaining security themselves. Military units are only deployed to secure strategic and state buildings.
Protesters are determined not to resort to violence, and are intent on proving wrong those who allege that those killed in Port Said were thugs.
However, it remains to be seen how long this self-restraint will last, as some are already calling for an escalation.
“Port Said for the government is the Suez Canal. As long as the canal is functioning, they’ll remain indifferent. We’ll close it for them,” one protester shouted during Friday’s protest.
The economic fallout over the past month is visible, yet this city of merchants remains defiant, persisting in its belief that nothing else will restore its dignity and rights.
“We have survived two years in difficult conditions, we can survive one more,” exclaimed a protester and street cart vendor. “Port Said won’t go hungry.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.