PORT SAID, Egypt – For nearly two weeks, protesters and strikers have shut down much of Egypt's Mediterranean city of Port Said, filling up the streets with one angry rally after another. At the unrest's height, they succeeded in closing off a multimillion-dollar port for days, forcing some ships to reroute, and in sealing off a major factory complex.
The strikes in this city of 750,000 at the tip of the strategic Suez Canal rattled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his government in a way that previous protests haven't, because they directly hit the economy. Opponents of Morsi, some of whom now openly call for his ouster, are looking to Port Said as a model for stepping up their campaign against him with a possible wave of civil disobedience in other parts of the country.
The plans for wider strikes are being pushed mainly by younger revolutionary groups. But in the process they appear to be pulling in opposition politicians, who had previously been reluctant — and at times unable — to step up street action against Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. The opposition is searching for a way to organize public anger against Morsi at a time when it has called for a boycott of parliamentary elections due to begin in April. The main opposition political coalition, the National Salvation Front, is considering some forms of civil disobedience, along with street campaigns, to back up its election boycott call.
Ziad el-Oleimi, a former lawmaker and prominent revolutionary since the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, said Port Said's strikes — triggered a discussion among Morsi opponents on how to develop mechanisms of revolt. One idea is to encourage the public to stop paying electricity and other bills to the government as a sign of protest.
"We are facing a regime that is now immune to popular rallies. The revolution must develop its tactics. Strike and civil disobedience are among the measures that can harm the abilities of authority to rule," he said. "What is happening in Port Said moves us to a new area, and gives people an example of something they have not tried before."
Already, calls for strikes in several cities in the Nile Delta have led to clashes. In the Nile Delta city of Mansoura this week, protesters convinced staff at the main government office to go on strike, but pro-Brotherhood residents assaulted their sit-in, beating some protesters. Police then moved in, and clashes have continued between protesters and security forces for the past four days.
A civil disobedience campaign also has its limitations, illustrated by Port Said itself.
Morsi has portrayed those who forced the factory and port closures as "thugs" and "outlaws," seeking to discredit the protests. Shutting down factories also risks alienating workers reliant on their salaries. In some cases, protesters pressured workers into joining work stoppages.
And though Port Said strikes have been effective, they may be hard to reproduce elsewhere.
Most notably, Port Said is pervaded by an exceptional anger galvanizing the populace in a way not seen in other parts of the country.
Outrage has been boiling in the city since protests in late January against a court ruling that residents saw as unjust. During the protests, more than 40 residents were killed, mainly by security forces. Morsi praised the police, referred to the protesters as "thugs" and declared a state of emergency and curfew in Port Said's province and two neighboring provinces. While police withdrew from the city, the military moved in to protect key installations and buildings. The military did not crack down on the strikes.
The January protests were sparked when a court sentenced to death 21 people — mostly Port Said residents — for involvement in a deadly soccer riot in the city a year earlier. Most of the 74 people killed in the soccer riot were visiting fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly team. Many residents accuse authorities of bending to pressure from the Ultras, a powerful organization of Al-Ahly fans who have staged protests in Cairo and repeatedly battled security forces the past two years.
Residents' sense of being persecuted — by the verdicts, the protester killings and Morsi's stances — were key to bringing public support to the strikes, first launched by students 13 days ago.
"The verdict was politicized, and we were angered by it. So they end up killing over 40 people," said protester Ahmed Hafez. "The Ultras in Cairo pressured them, and they chose to lean on this small province."
Hafez was among protesters who for five days last week blocked access to the key East Port terminal, on an offshoot of the Canal, forcing many ships looking to load or unload cargo to go elsewhere.
Also last week, protesters forced the shutdown for at least two days of a major factory complex in the city. The port protest was lifted, in part because protesters worried about being labeled "thugs" and in part because military officials negotiated with families of slain protesters. The factory shutdown was also largely ended after negotiations with the complex's owners.
But other stoppages continue. Most shops and businesses in the city are shut, opening a few hours a day, if at all. Teachers have been on strike, shutting down schools. Workers in four banks agreed to join the strike by the end of this week. Brotherhood members and supporters are nowhere in sight in the city, while protesters excoriate Morsi with ridicule and scathing posters.
"This was civil disobedience that is turning into a revolt," said Mohammed Nabil, a 29-year old accountant. "It is because people are not only indignant but they are also starting to understand and explain to one another. The anger is against the regime and its security agencies."
Students, teachers and soccer fans make up the bulk of strikers. They also convinced many merchants and workers at the facilities where they protested to join in. In some cases, however, they have pressured employees to participate. Last week, protesters outside the court chanted for employees to strike and accused the chief judge — whom they accused of being a Brotherhood supporter — of preventing them from doing so.
"Court staff, yo! We heard your boss won't let you go down," the crowd chanted. "We tell him, five more minutes and don't ask us what will happen. The women will come up to you to bring them down. So they don't call us thugs."
Morsi has responded with a mix of carrots and sticks. He promised an investigation into some of the January deaths and said he would review the status of the city as a Free Trade Zone, which Mubarak clamped down on. At the same time, Morsi denounced the strikers in a speech last week as "outlaws" and urged residents not to cooperate with them.
Mohammed el-Zanaty, a merchant who supports the strikes even though he has had no work since the January violence, said he had no faith in Morsi's promises of an investigation. He demands an apology from Morsi and official recognition that those killed in January were "martyrs" not "thugs."
"If he can't try the security officials, there will be no justice in Egypt," he said outside the courthouse.
Siham Saleh, a 36-year-old teacher also on strike, said the city will not let parliamentary elections take place.
"We have no faith in an unjust ruler," she said. "An unjust ruler must go. I am looking for a just one."
Mohammed Youssry, a 25-year old software engineer and activist in Port Said, said civil disobedience organizers in tapping into the city's sense of injustice and convincing many of the benefits of striking.
But he acknowledged that some workers and employees were forced to participate. "The pressure seems to be working but sometimes at a cost," he said, referring to accusations of thuggery.
"One thing that worked for sure is that the media blackout against Port Said has been lifted. People are paying attention."