Troops in Port Said and Suez, two riot-torn cities along the strategic Suez Canal, stood by and watched Monday night as thousands took to the streets in direct defiance of a night curfew and a state of emergency declared by President Mohammed Morsi a day earlier. Residents of the two cities and Ismailiya, a third city also under the emergency, marched just as the curfew came into force at 9 p.m.
The display of contempt for Morsi's decision was tantamount to an outright rebellion that many worried could spread to other parts of the country. Already, protesters across much of Egypt are battling police, cutting off roads and railway lines, and besieging government offices and police stations as part of a growing revolt against Morsi and his Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood group.
At least 60 people have been killed since Friday.
"As long as the president's hands are stained in blood, he must leave," said Port Said lawyer Mohammed el-Assfouri as he stood outside the city's Mariam mosque where mourners prayed for the dead.
Morsi's opponents accuse Islamists of monopolizing power and failing to live up to the ideals of the pro-democracy uprising that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
In Cairo, intense fighting for days around central Tahrir Square engulfed two landmark hotels and forced the U.S. Embassy to suspend public services on Tuesday. The lobby of the five-star Semiramis along the Nile was trashed after clashes on the street outside spilled into the hotel early Tuesday morning, when armed, masked men attempted to rob it.
In Port Said, where most of the deadly violence has been centered, tanks were fanned out on the streets of the city of some 600,000 located 140 miles northeast of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast and at the tip of the Suez Canal. New funerals were held for six more of those killed in clashes, with thousands marching and chanting against Morsi. Similar scenes have replayed over the past few days.
"Erhal! Erhal!" or "Leave, leave!" they screamed, reviving the iconic chant of the 2011 uprising.
The chant is now turned against Morsi. A sign carried by one mourner said: "The independent state of Port Said." Another had the image of a young and slim man in dark sunglasses posing next to a red car. Relatives said he was shot dead while walking home on Saturday.
"The continuation of the conflict between the different political forces and their differences over how the country should be run could lead to the collapse of the state and threaten future generations," said army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is both head of the military and defense minister.
At the same time he defended the right of Egyptians to protest, while acknowledging the difficult challenges facing his troops in Port Said and Suez.
"The deployment of the armed forces poses a grave predicament for us insofar as how we balance avoiding confrontations with Egyptian citizens, their right to protest and the protection and security of vital facilities that impact Egypt's national security," he said.
He also spoke of a "realistic threat" facing the nation as a result of what he called the political, economic and social challenges.
The warning was the military's first public comment since the latest crisis erupted last week around the second anniversary of the uprising on Friday. El-Sissi was speaking to military academy cadets and the comments were posted on the armed forces' official Facebook page.
He also warned of what he described as attempts to influence the "stability" of state institutions.
"It is a grave matter that hurts national security and the nation's future."
He did not elaborate, but critics of Morsi complain he has been trying to bring state institutions under Brotherhood control to tighten the Islamists' grip on power.
The military and Islamists led by the Brotherhood struggled over power in the transition following Mubarak's rule. The Brotherhood dominated every election since the uprising, winning control of parliament, the presidency and pushing through a constitution that could pave the way for imposing more strict Islamic law in Egypt.
The army had long defended the secular nature of Egypt before the Brotherhood came to power and is seen as wary of letting Islamists have too much power.
Morsi has ordered the army to restore order in Port Said and Suez. On Sunday, he slapped a 30-day state of emergency and night curfew on the two cities as well as Ismailiya. The army has not deployed in Ismailiya, however, which has seen little of the deadly violence flaring in the other two cities.
The military, Egypt's most powerful institution, was the de facto ruler since army officers seized power in 1952 and toppled the monarchy. Generals forced Mubarak from power at the end of the uprising and then a ruling military council took over from him.
The military's nearly 17 months in power tainted its reputation, with critics charging the ruling generals of mismanaging the transition to democratic rule, human rights violations and hauling thousands of civilians before military tribunals.
Morsi became the first freely elected president in June and was immediately plunged into a power struggle with the military when it tried to curtail his powers. In August, he ordered the retirement of the army's top two generals, regained powers they had taken away from him and handpicked el-Sissi as defense minister and army chief.
The timing of el-Sissi's warning is particularly significant because it came at a time of growing opposition to Morsi and when he appeared to be failing to stem the latest bout of political violence, sinking the country deeper into chaos and lawlessness.
Some of the demonstrators in Port Said on Monday night waved white-and-green flags they said were the colors of a new and independent state. Such secession would be unthinkable, but the move underlined the depth of frustration in the city.
Since coming to office, Morsi has failed to tackle the country's massive problems, which range from an economy in free fall to surging crime, chaos on the streets and lack of political consensus. His woes deepened when the main opposition coalition turned down his offer for a dialogue to resolve the crisis, insisting he meets their conditions first.
The wave of unrest has touched cities across much of Egypt since Thursday, including Cairo, the three Suez Canal cities, Alexandria on the Mediterranean in the north and a string of cities in the Nile Delta.
The violence accelerated Friday, the second anniversary of the uprising, with protests to mark the event turning to clashes that left 11 dead, most of them in Suez.
The next day, riots exploded in Port Said after a court convicted and sentenced to death 21 defendants — mostly locals — for a mass soccer riot in the city's main stadium a year ago. Rioters attacked police stations, clashed with security forces in the streets and shots and tear gas were fired at protester funerals in mayhem that left 44 people dead over the weekend.
The violence in Port Said was fueled in part by the anger and sense of betrayal that have been simmering in the city following last year's riot, the worst ever in Egyptian soccer.
Protesters and activists, meanwhile, are accusing the police of excessive use of force in dealing with demonstrators. Morsi, in their view, endorsed their tactics when he commended them in a short, televised speech on Sunday night when he declared the state of emergency and curfew.
The U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, took note of the high death toll in the latest unrest.
She urged Morsi's government "to take urgent measures to ensure that law enforcement personnel never again use disproportionate or excessive force against protesters" because it is both illegal and likely to make the situation more explosive. Pillay called for immediate investigations into the wave of violence and a review of police tactics used to clamp down on demonstrations.
The police, hated for their brutality in the Mubarak years, have been calling for better and more sophisticated weapons to defend themselves when their facilities come under attack, which happened in Port Said as well as Suez.
In Cairo on Tuesday, the area around central Tahrir Square was relatively quiet, with only intermittent clashes between police and rock-throwing protesters. On Monday, protesters and police battled each other in area all day and into the night in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the 2011 uprising.
Early Tuesday morning, police foiled an attempted robbery by 12 masked gunmen at the Semiramis Intercontinental. The luxury hotel is one of the two caught up in clashes around Tahrir Square.
Security officials say the attackers looted shops in small hotel mall and smashed glass. They suspect the culprits are criminals who used the rioting outside on the street as cover. AP television footage shows protesters trying to arrest some of the thieves. By Tuesday, the shattered glass facade of the lobby was boarded up and only a few guests remained.
The nearby U.S. Embassy said on its website that it was closing public services on Tuesday because of the security situation.
Hendawi reported from Cairo. AP reporter Amir Makar contributed to this report.