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No police were in sight in the streets or around the complex, and riot police had withdrawn to barracks on the city's edge.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.
The unrest has strained the security forces and police. In a rare show of discontent, multiple protests by police have broken out around the country. The protesting policemen say the security forces have been dragged into the political fight between the protesters and Morsi and accuse the president and his Muslim Brotherhood of using the police.
In some cases, police have shut down their stations in strikes the past week. Police on Friday protested in front of the Interior Ministry demanding the minister be removed.
Many of the protests have been by the riot police, known as Central Security, who form the main shock troops against street protesters. Riot police in Port Said burned five vehicles in their barracks earlier this week in a protest.
The top commander of Central Security was sacked Thursday night, the ministry announced.
Fears are high over the prospect of new violence over Saturday's verdicts in the soccer riot trial.
The case goes back to a riot that broke out in February 2012 at Port Said's stadium between fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly club and those of the local Al-Masry team. More than 70 people were killed, almost all of them Al-Ahly fans. More than 70 people have been on trial, most of them Port Said residents, but also including nine security officials.1 comment on this story
When the first round of verdicts was announced on Jan. 28, with death sentences against 21 defendants, Port Said residents were furious, calling the trial a sham. They accuse authorities of issuing the verdicts to appease a club of diehard Al-Ahly fans, known as Ultras, who have carried out their own wave of protests in Cairo demanding justice for their dead fans.
The verdicts sparked an uprising in Port Said, and police responded with a heavy crackdown that left more than 40 protesters dead. Since then the city has been in a near constant state of unrest.
Whatever way the verdicts go on Saturday, one side or another — or both — are likely to be outraged and take to the streets. And if any of the police officials are convicted or receive heavy sentences, it is likely to further stoke discontent among the security forces.