Thousands of protesters took to the streets in three Suez Canal cities on Monday night, defying a night-time curfew and a month-long state of emergency declared by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a day earlier.
"Down with Mohamed Morsi! No to the emergency law,"they chanted.
In a televised address to the nation on Sunday, the Islamist President announced the imposition of martial law in the restive cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia in a bid "to end the bloodshed and protect citizens." The move came in response to four days of street violence that left more than 50 people dead and hundreds of others injured.
The latest wave of unrest was sparked by nationwide anti-government protests on the eve of the second anniversary of the mass uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, that began on 25 Jan 2011. Opposition activists on Friday reiterated the now-familiar revolutionary slogans of "bread, freedom and social justice" and "the people want the downfall of the regime".
They demanded quicker reforms and called for amendments to the Islamist-tinged constitution passed in a popular referendum in December. The situation deteriorated further after 21 defendants charged with involvement in last February's violence at Port Said football stadium -- the worst football-related violence in the country's history -- were sentenced to death on Sunday. The verdict triggered angry riots and attacks on police stations in Port Said.
The army has been deployed in Port Said and Suez in a bid "to restore stability and protect vital installations," a military spokesman said on Egyptian TV. "Those who defy the curfew or damage public property will be dealt with harshly," he warned.
In Alexandria, Egypt's second city, demonstrators meanwhile staged rallies to protest the return of the much-detested emergency law, which was used for decades by Mubarak to round up opponents, silence voices of dissent and stifle freedom of expression. The protesters accused President Morsi of using the same repressive tactics as his predecessor.
"Morsi is Mubarak," they shouted, "Down with the rule of the (Muslim Brotherhood) Supreme Guide."
In recent weeks, a government crackdown on journalists critical of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood has fuelled concerns of restrictions on press freedoms gained after the January 2011 uprising. Several journalists have faced criminal investigations after being accused by Morsi's Islamist supporters of "insulting the president".
In December, a lawsuit was filed against Egypt's answer to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show -- satirist Bassem Youssef -- for poking fun at the president on his weekly television programme Al Bernameg (The Programme) on Egyptian independent satellite channel CBC. Youssef appeared on the show hugging a pillow with the president's picture on it -- a gesture mocking Morsi's repeated calls on Egyptians to "unify ranks and love one another". While the court dismissed the charge, the case served as a reminder to journalists that the country's controversial new constitution includes provisions forbidding insults.
Meanwhile the online editor-in-chief for state-sponsored newspaper Al Ahram, Hani Shukrallah, was forced into early retirement this month. Highly respected for his objectivity in covering the news, Shukrallah would not reveal the details surrounding his removal from the post, but some have suggested via Twitter that his dismissal was for not being pro-Muslim Brotherhood.
In December, Islamist protesters staged a sit-in outside the Media Production City calling for "the purging of the media" and accusing independent journalists and talk show hosts of vilifying the Islamist President.
In Cairo, security forces continued battling rock-throwing youths around Kasr-el-Nil, not far from Tahrir Square for a fifth consecutive day on Monday, disrupting traffic in the downtown area. The protesters hurled molotov cocktails at the police and set fire to a police armoured personnel carrier, in scenes reminiscent of "The Friday of Rage" on 28 January 2011.
Members of the 6 April youth movement that called for the mass uprising two years ago condemned the government's slow response to the violence and warned that the state of emergency would further provoke Morsi's opponents. They called for a political solution to address the root cause of the problem.
Emerging from talks with the president on Monday night, Ayman Nour, Head of the liberal Ghad Al Thawra Party said that the president had rejected the call for a national unity government but had agreed to amendments to the constitution including articles that opposition political parties say undermine women's rights.
Rights groups denounced Morsi's declaration of a state of emergency as "a backward step" that would allow police to resort to the heavy-handed tactics practiced under the ousted regime.
Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch in Cairo lamented Morsi's decision to re-impose martial law describing it as "a classic knee-jerk reaction that would pave the way for more abuse by the Ministry of Interior, causing more anger."
Analysts have expressed fears meanwhile, that the newly-declared state of emergency will plunge the country -- battered by weeks of street violence -- into deeper political and economic turmoil, and further polarising the already divided country.
The emergence of the mysterious "Black Bloc", a group that has vowed "to protect the goals of the revolution and rid the country of the fascist regime" has raised alarm. Islamists have so far exercised restraint and have stayed away from the protests, in order to avoid the kind of bloody confrontation witnessed in December outside of the presidential palace. They have warned warned however, that their patience is wearing thin, and that they are preparing for combat should the need arise. Such warnings have led some to even express fears of a collapse in Egyptian society. A scenario that would present Egypt's powerful military with a fresh opportunity to return to power.