Leadership vacuum in Suez illustrates Egypt's instability

SUEZ, Egypt — More than two months have passed since the upheaval that forced Egypt's president to resign, yet this bustling seaport — home of the Suez Canal — still has no working police force and a military presence so overstretched that commanders rely on community elders to disarm gunmen and on neighborhood patrols to combat the soaring crime rate.

Suez's seething population of 550,000 so hated Hosni Mubarak that the deposed president never once visited in his three-decade rule, locals assert with pride. In return, they say, the regime steered revenues from the canal, oil refineries and industrial zones to other provinces.

Suez residents, among the first to take to the streets, hoped that the overthrow of the regime would bring about a political and economic renaissance for their long-suffering city. Instead, a persistent lawlessness has settled in here that exposes the limitations of Egypt's interim military rulers and is a reminder that revolutions that so quickly sweep away authority can leave vacuums that are difficult to fill.

"There is absolutely no one to run the city. Even in this transitional period, we don't see any administrators, any government workers; the governor isn't here, no secretaries of the governorate, nothing," said Hani Haddad, 32, an unemployed accountant. "The consequences are showing up: drugs all over the street, thuggery, robberies, no traffic control, rising food prices. The only positive thing I see is that people are now free to talk."

Suez, one of Egypt's largest cities, is emblematic of what's taken place in much of the country. The once-venerated military, which is losing popularity amid allegations of abuse and bogus detentions, maintains only a bare minimum of security as overextended officers take on the roles of policeman and politician. Increasingly, the military relies on community elders and citizen patrols to keep order, reverting to village-style justice in urban centers.

Political observers say Suez shows why the military must move quickly to turn over the Arab world's most populous nation to civilian rule. Most of the local complaints — a skeleton police force, lack of government, unemployment and rising crime rates — are mirrored in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and other major hubs. Without stable local councils to share in the responsibility of governing, the military faces a Herculean task in securing the country. What will happen between now and elections scheduled for the fall is a worry.

The first protester killed was from Suez, shot and killed on Jan. 25, when the uprising began. Days later, mobs torched police stations, government buildings and businesses owned by Mubarak cronies. When the regime fell in February, the people of Suez kicked out their longtime governor and his short-lived successor. A new governor — an outsider — was appointed last week and has yet to take office.

A handful of policemen returned to their posts this month, but they mostly sip tea under shade trees, terrified to respond to complaints without military backup. Women no longer venture out after dark, when the streets become forbidding. The army has sealed off the picturesque boardwalk along the Suez Canal — one of the world's busiest and most lucrative waterways — to prevent attacks on passing ships.

"If you have a sister or mother at home, you're worried to go out and leave them alone when you go to your work," said Mohamed Abdel Mowfy, 29, a businessman.

"I don't consider this stable at all," he added. "We don't know when we're going to sleep soundly again. We trust only God."

Apart from the military, the only real semblance of authority in Suez is 86-year-old Sheikh Hafez Salama, a white-bearded opposition activist and philanthropist who's hailed across Egypt for leading armed resistance against Israeli forces during the so-called War of Attrition from 1967 to 1970 and during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Before that, he fought the British occupation here as part of a Muslim Brotherhood splinter group that formed in 1948. He's still an Islamist, but he's regarded today as an independent with no organizational affiliation and a moderate who works closely with non-Islamist allies.

While defending Suez from the Israeli advance in 1973, according to an account in the local newspaper Ahram Weekly, Salama's guerrillas "took on the responsibility of locating Israeli patrols on the west bank of the canal, penetrating enemy lines through surprise attacks and suicide missions, spying on enemy camps and relaying information gathered to Egyptian military headquarters."

Salama's deft leadership earned him wide support throughout Egypt and the region, and money for his projects flowed in from private donors. He now runs several schools and a mosque in Suez.

In a 1991 cable leaked to WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy, an analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo called Salama one of the two "most incendiary" critics of the Mubarak regime. But the analyst also reported that Salama, then in his 60s, was of declining influence and "running out of steam," an observation that seems particularly flawed, given Salama's role in recent months.

Earlier this month, Salama sported a small Libyan flag pinned to his lapel, a token he'd received from anti-Moammar Gadhafi rebels when he'd surprised them on the front lines in Libya a few days earlier. Salama was a popular speaker at Tahrir Square, the downtown Cairo protest camp, and he's cheered on his frequent visits to the port city of Alexandria.

He was the first witness the prosecution called at the trial this month of 14 men accused of killing protesters during the uprising.

Wearing his signature red fez hat, Salama sat in the office of his elementary school, where students in green uniforms shyly approached him to kiss his hand. Since the revolt upended Egyptian life, Salama's phone rings incessantly as followers seek his guidance on how to remake their society.

When he was asked whether he was the de facto government of Suez, Salama let out a deep sigh.

"I am forced to," he said wearily. "It's not by choice."

Salama's office has taken on several tasks that usually would fall to a local government. His aides have compiled Suez casualty figures from the uprising, and Salama gave the family of each "martyr" 50,000 Egyptian pounds, about $8,400, in compensation from his own coffers.

The sheikh intervened, preventing "a massacre," locals said, when warring neighbors in a densely packed slum drew machine guns on one another. He's worked on prisoner issues, sectarian problems and rising food prices. When flour shipments to Suez stopped amid the crisis, Salama's contacts with merchants in neighboring provinces helped him bring in 5 tons of wheat flour so local bakeries could remain open.

"Groups of young men were directed by Sheikh Salama to distribute loaves of bread free of charge to areas on the outskirts of the city, and to supply vegetables at affordable prices," The Egyptian Gazette newspaper reported in a profile of the sheikh.

Though he's disheartened by the lack of security in Suez, Salama remains respectful of the military, and he reminds his followers that army support was crucial to preventing the uprising from descending into civil war as in neighboring Libya. When he was asked whether he trusted the military, Salama chose his words carefully.

"We've called for the officials on the military council to change the suffering of the Egyptian people, the unemployment, high prices and lack of services that people suffer from on all levels," he said. "We hope to see the effect of this revolution but, sadly, so far we haven't started any positive work."

On a mild spring morning, members of the Suez Youth for Change, a loose coalition of about 200 young revolutionaries, gathered at a garden they'd renamed "Hyde Park," in honor of the London landmark's Speaker's Corner.

Before the recent referendum on constitutional amendments, the youths opened the space to legal experts and activists who helped voters understand ballot issues. Large portraits of slain revolutionaries dotted the park, the youth group's memorial to their dead classmates.

About six young men in their 20s, some toting laptops, waited for a government-owned bus that would take them to inspect coastal cleanup work. They'd be back in Hyde Park with other activists later, they said, to run their daily literacy classes and a children's art workshop.

Elham Mohamed, 56, a city worker, approached the youths and praised them for helping to fill the leadership vacuum. Still, she said, Suez needs sweeping institutional changes that only political reform and experienced leaders can provide.

"After the revolution, the only change we saw is youth cleaning the streets, our youth taking care of the country, helping with security," she said. "But real changes and reform? Nothing's happened."


Click here to read the cable in a larger format


Egypt's hard-line Islamists speak up, creating unease

Egyptian army no longer seen as protesters' friend

Egypt faces new turmoil: Looted state security files

Follow McClatchy on Twitter.