In restive, fractious Port Said, police finally gave up trying to restore order last week, and walked off the job.
Two months on-off street battles have left more than 50 Port Said residents and five police dead. An investigation by Human Rights Watch and local NGOs found evidence of police brutality, but also unidentified armed actors on the streets among the angry locals.
Behind all of this, 21 Port Said men are sentenced to hang for playing a part in a football stadium riot in February 2012 which left 74 dead, most of them Cairo football fans.
Few here respect the investigation which led to the sentences, and many locals feel they have been sacrificed by President Mohamed Morsi’s government for the sake of keeping the peace in Cairo.
Shops are shut, mobs of angry men quickly gather at the slightest provocation. Port Said is on a hair-trigger.
Only one institution commands full respect here – The Egyptian Army. And there is one officer most people seem to especially like: Colonel Ahmed Wasfi, of 2nd Army Division.
He’s the man who came in as the police departed, and the man who is now in charge of getting Port Said running again.
We accidentally encountered the Colonel giving yet another impromptu press conference. It was interesting to see how his gifts for talking to the people are as abundant, as the much-criticised President Morsi’s seem to be absent.
The Colonel’s signature style is to get out of his jeep and bustle into an adoring and pressing crowd, hands-on, engaging fearlessly with the public.
He is also politically pretty savvy.
This is what he said on Sunday outside the burned-out buildings of the central square… with the faintest whiff of teargas still in the air:
[Please read below for the translation]
Colonel: “My men and I – working with your sons – will clean this area and re-paint it. For those who want to stage demonstrations in this park in front, it is their right to do so. And for those defendants who were in Ismailia prison – I will confirm for you in the next hour that they have already arrived back. We will resume the judicial procedures from here in Port Said. On the subject of martyrs’ rights, God willing, the Defence minister is now asking the authorities in Cairo to consider them to be revolutionaries, along with the people who were injured.”
[Context from me: This means compensation for the families, and dignity restored]
Crowd: “Morsi should have given a speech saying this!”
Colonel: “I need the following from Port Said…”
Woman in crowd insults the police: “The Police are thugs!”
Colonel: “We in Port Said are respectable people – we don’t insult anyone. Other people in Egypt should learn from our example. I need the following from Port Said: Schools should be running again, schools working under the protection of my security… Our children should be studying.
Crowd: “Morsi should show up here and say this to us!”
Colonel: “I need Port Said to be back to normal. We are setting an example to the whole country. Those who want to stage sit-ins [demos], go right ahead. You are more than welcome if the protests are peaceful. But we have to get back to normal, and the other demands I will pass them onto the Minister of Defence, and the minister, God willing, will attend to them all. Please let’s get back to work, to re-open the shops, return to school, our children must study. Egypt cannot progress without education, work and productivity. Especially in Port Said. Port Said can’t move forward without education and work. Anyone who wants to stage a sit-in, do so. Anyone who wants to go on a protest march, go ahead. The tools of democracy are for you to use. I am a military man, I don’t have anything to do with democracy… I am just following the orders I’m given. Democracy is for civilians, for anyone who wants to do them peacefully.”
Crowd: “What about civil disobedience?”
Colonel: “All of these actions – sit-ins, marches, protests, they are all fine as long as they are peaceful. What I need from you all is to get back to work. Now we all need to work. And to get our children’s education back on track.”
Journalist in crowd: “Why do you think the people in Port Said listened to you yesterday and didn’t go along with the civil disobedience?”
Colonel: “The people of Port Said will help the city stand on its feet. Egypt stands with its people, and Port Said stands with its people. Nobody can help this country get back on its feet, except for the people. Egypt is rich with the men it has. Now, I’m not being emotional here…”
Journalist: “What about the Suez Canal? What is the situation?”
Colonel: “It’s 100% operational. The Suez Canal wasn’t touched by anyone and the people of the Suez Canal are protecting the Canal.”
Crowd chants delightedly: “The people and the army are hand in hand! The people and the army are hand in hand!”
Colonel Wasfi shook hands, kissed hijab-wearing mothers, patted the heads of small boys, answered every point made to him, waggled a reproving finger at those who were out of line… And firmly refused to be drawn into any political discussion whatsoever.
While police are walking off the job all over Egypt, complaining of being used to enforce unpopular political decisions… And rioting breaks out regularly in Cairo and elsewhere, President Morsi sends spokesmen out to convey his thoughts to the public in his place. They don’t inspire anyone.
Colonel Wasfi is – quite simply – holding Port Said together.
Follow Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught on Twitter: @anitamcnaught