Egyptian Army General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi Warns of Possible 'Collapse of the State'

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. It can't be a good sign when the head of Egypt's army warns about a possible collapse of the state, but that's what General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi did today. Al-Sisi who is also defense minister, said the Egyptian state could collapse if the country's political forces don't reconcile. His warning comes amid a wave of protests and violence that's left more than 50 people dead. Some of the violence is in Cairo with unrest reminiscent of the anti-government protests that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago. But some of the worst violence has taken place in the city of Port Said, at the northern end of the Suez Canal. David Kirkpatrick, Cairo Bureau chief at The New York Times is on the line with us. And there's been turmoil in Egypt for two years, David. Now there's upheaval barely seven months into Mohammed Morsi's presidency. Tell us what the situation in the country is like right now. What do you see is happening?

David Kirkpatrick: You know, the defense minister was in one sense stating something that we all already know, which is there's a rising tide of lawlessness in Port Said. It's probably correctly termed anarchy. And there's problems here in Cairo too. You know, in Cairo there's been street fighting sporadically since the revolt against Hosni Mubarak two years ago, but to be honest it's been fairly confined. But this morning about 3AM that violence spilled out into an attack on a luxury hotel next to the American embassy, the Intercontinental Semiramis Hotel in Cairo. And it's you know, the heart of the tourist business and the heart of the sort of diplomatic circle. That is a bad sign for stability here, for the tourist industry, which Egypt badly needs to try to recover. In many ways it's ominous.

Werman: Now, David, you returned from Port Said today. Tell us what you saw this morning on the streets there. Is it different from what's happening in Cairo?

Kirkpatrick: Yeah, ti's very different. I mean in Cairo you have again, still relatively localized anti-government protests. In Port Said the whole city has risen up and thrown off the police. The police are cowering inside their stations, nightly battering mobs of protestors that attack them. Last night they were firing live ammunition fairly indiscriminately into the streets. And this morning I went to the site of one of those battles to follow up and I saw bullet holes in some metal trash bins. I found bullets in the street, and also saw a number of bullet holes in the side of the police station. Last night after I'd returned to the safety of the hotel I could hear the automatic weapons from my hotel room. So that's a sign that things are really getting out of hand.

Werman: So tell us what happened last night in Port Said at the time the 9PM curfew took effect.

Kirkpatrick: Yes, just to put this in perspective, President Morsi has said a number of firm and even Draconian things. He's talked about a state of emergency, suspending the right to trial, he imposed a 9PM curfew, and he's called on the military to enforce the law in these three restive cities. But in fact, none of that has worked and at 9PM when the curfew took effect, citizens in all three cities by the thousands poured out in the street in protest, and as we've been discussing, in Port Said at least, they proceeded to attack a police station.

Werman: What is the role of the army right now? What is their relationship with President Morsi?

Kirkpatrick: That's a very good question. As you'll remember, the generals took power when Mubarak left. They held onto it for about a year and a half. They handed it over to Mr. Morsi in August and it appears they were paid back for that by provisions in the new constitution that granted them broad autonomy over their own institution and within the Egyptian government. So now President Morsi calls on the military to help police the streets, but is he really directing the military or asking them nicely? We don't know. And then the following day the defense minister warns publicly that unless the civilian political leaders get it together things are sliding towards anarchy. Is he warning Morsi or just reporting the news? Again, we don't know. People I've talked to who are more or less close to the military say that this current group of military leaders truly has no appetite to take on a political role. Neither do they have much enthusiasm for the idea of going out in the streets and forcing people to back down. So they're really in a bind here. Unless the civilians can work something out, they're caught between a loss of credibility if they fail to quell the unrest, and a loss of esteem if they use force to quell the unrest. I don't know what's gonna happen next.

Werman: David Kirkpatrick, Cairo Bureau chief for The New York Times, thank you.

Kirkpatrick: It's always a pleasure.