Military takes over from police in Egyptian city

By Mosaad El-gohary

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 8 2013 9:52 a.m. MST

Egyptians clean up the streets as the Egyptian army takes control of the state security building after several days of clashes between protesters and riot police in Port Said, Egypt, Friday, March 8, 2013. With the country in chaos from weeks of protests against the Islamist president, the police have now joined the fray, launching their own protests. Some security forces in Port Said have refused to leave their barracks to move against protesters in the street amid clashes raging for days. Others have refused orders to deploy to Port Said from elsewhere to help in the fight.

Khalil Hamra, Associated Press

PORT SAID, Egypt — Egypt's police forces withdrew from the streets of the restive Egyptian city of Port Said on the Suez Canal and the military took over main security duties Friday, trying to calm a wave of protests and deadly clashes that turned into virtual revolt against the government.

Port Said has been the center of the heaviest violence in the unrest that has engulfed multiple cities in Egypt since late January and has raised questions over the control of the government of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

The military's move to replace the police in the city aimed to calm tempers since the police have been the focus of residents' outrage because of the killings of dozens of protesters in January, which many blamed on police use of excessive force.

But many expect new violence Saturday, when a court is to announce verdicts in a trial that has been an explosive element in Egypt's already polarized politics. The court is to issue judgments and sentences against some 50 defendants accused of involvement in a deadly soccer riot in Port Said in February 2012. Whatever the court rules, it is likely to anger parties on either side of the case in Cairo and Port Said.

In late January, the issuing of death penalties against 21 other defendants in the case, mostly Port Said residents, touched off the uprising in the city.

For the past week, protesters have been battling with police in the city, mainly around the city's main government complex, which includes the provincial government building and the main police headquarters. At least eight people have been killed in the fighting, including three policemen.

On Friday, the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said its forces turned over responsibility for ensuring security in Port Said to the armed forces "to alleviate tension."

No police were in sight in the streets or around the complex, and riot police had withdrawn to barracks on the city's edge. Instead, army tanks, armored vehicles and troops deployed around the government complex, the main city prison, the courthouse and other main institutions.

Gen. Ahmed Mahmoud Wasfi, commander of the 2nd Field Army, addressed protesters outside the main police headquarters, where the bottom floors were gutted by fire during the clashes the past week. He called on residents to call off a wave of strikes and civil disobedience that has shut down much of the work in the city the past three weeks.

"I want people to come see Port Said," Wasfi said. "I want Port Said to be like a beautiful bride. No shops close, weddings back, normal work back, so people know what Port Said really is."

Someone in the crowd shouted, "What about the martyrs?" — a sign of the continuing demand that police be punished for the protesters killed in the clashes. Wasfi said any demands "related to the martyrs" be sent to him.

Port Said residents largely trust the military more than the long-hated police forces, especially after troops at one point in the past week's turmoil seemed to side with protesters, shooting over the heads of police in an attempt to stop the security forces from firing. But the army presence is no guarantee of calm in the city.

Hundreds marched through the city on Friday in a funeral procession for one of two protesters shot to death in fighting with police the night before, one of whom had been shot in the head.

Other parts of the country have also been shaken by protests and clashes the past two months, particularly Cairo and cities in the Nile Delta. On Friday, protesters and police fought on a main thoroughfare along the Nile River.

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