Egypt's leader mulls army takeover of restive city
CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's Islamist president is considering whether to give the military full control of the restive Suez Canal city of Port Said after days of deadly street clashes stoked by excessive use of force by riot police, officials said Tuesday.
A handover to the military would be recognition of the failure of Mohammed Morsi's government to bring calm to Port Said, which has been in turmoil since late January. Furious at the president and the security forces, residents have been waging campaign of protests and strikes amounting to an outright revolt against the central government.
The city's latest round of violence entered a third day Tuesday. A fire erupted in the ground floor of the National Security Agency headquarters during clashes outside between police firing tear gas and birdshot and protesters throwing stones and firebombs. At least three civilians and three policemen have been killed and hundreds injured in protests since Sunday.
Port Said's protesters largely see the military positively -- particularly after troops on Sunday fired over the heads of police in an attempt to push them back from clashes with protesters outside police headquarters. Still, it is not clear protesters would stop their rallies if the army took control.
"It is like a civil war right now," said Mohammed Youssef, a member of April 6, one of the youth groups that engineered the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. "We can't tell what would be like in the coming day because every day is getting worse than the day before."
He said the military's popularity "surged among most people" after Sunday's events, when troops were hit by tear gas fired by police and an army colonel was shot the leg. On Monday, soldiers protected the funeral processions of protesters killed in the fighting.
Morsi met with his security chief and top military officers to discuss pulling police out of Port Said and putting the military in charge of security in the streets on hopes of bringing calm, officials from the military and the president's office said.
"The presidency is considering this option after relations between the security apparatus and the people of Port Said deteriorated," said one official in the president's office. He added that the idea behind the proposal is that once the army takes control, it would presumably not get into confrontation with protesters.
The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about the president's deliberations.
The move comes at a time when some in the opposition against Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood have called on the military to take back power in order to end the unrest that first erupted in November and has spiraled out of control since. The mainly liberal and secular opposition accuse the Brotherhood of dominating power and say the unrest shows Morsi and the group are incapable of dealing with the country's multiple woes.
Morsi's Islamist supporters have accused the opposition of trying to use street violence to overturn their successive victories in elections since Mubarak's fall.
Most in the opposition say they oppose a military takeover, and the military itself is wary, since its reputation was severely marred during its post-Mubarak stint in power. But those who favor such a move see it as a way to break the Brotherhood grip on power.
Observers have also spoken of another scenario in which Morsi himself is forced to ask the military to step in nationwide. He would likely do so only grudgingly, since the generals may push him to make concessions to the opposition or otherwise hamper his control.
Port Said could present "a new model for civilian-military relations in the comeback of the military to political life and Morsi surely will keep an eye on it," said Galal Nasser, chief editor of Al-Ahram Weekly and a fellow at the Nasser Military Academy.
"Morsi is forced to bring the military because he has no other option. But he hopes the military fails in its mission," he said.
Morsi's deliberations also come amid reports of tense relations between the president and the head of the military, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The general has made several statements believed to have strained ties, including saying he would never allow the military to be dominated by the Brotherhood and signaling the military's readiness to intervene in politics. Brotherhood officials have in past weeks stepped up criticism of the military.
Army troops have been guarding key installations in Port Said since the city first rose up in near revolt in January. The military sent reinforcements to the city late Monday after protesters torched a government building and police headquarters there.
The turmoil in Port Said, located on the Mediterranean coast at the mouth of the Suez Canal, started on Jan. 26, after a court issued death sentences against 21 defendants -- mostly Port Said residents -- for involvement in a deadly soccer riot in the city in February 2012 that killed 74 people, mostly fans of a rival Cairo soccer club, Al-Ahly.
Following the verdicts, Port Said residents said they were used as scapegoats to prevent unrest by die-hard Al-Ahly fans, who had warned of "pools of blood" if sentences were light.
Protests sparked by the verdicts turned into deadly clashes in which more than 40 people were killed, mostly at the hands of police. Port Said residents allege Morsi gave the green light for excessive use of force by the police. For the past nearly three weeks, residents have been carrying out a campaign of civil disobedience and strikes demanding Morsi investigate the protester killings and prosecute the police.
Many fear a new wave of violence on March 9, when a court issues verdicts for more defendants in the soccer riot case, including several police officers.
Protests and unrest have been breaking out in areas around the country in successive waves since November. The new unrest comes ahead of parliamentary elections due to start in April. The opposition has announced a boycott of the polls.
"We are not going to taking part of building a regime that is no different from a regime that existed for the past 30 years," the biggest opposition grouping, the National Salvation Front, said Tuesday, announcing a new media campaign to spread the word on a boycott, including the creation of a new satellite TV channel.
In Cairo, skirmishes erupted on Tuesday between street protesters and riot police in a main street overlooking the Nile, a day after protesters set fire to police vehicles in the same area.
Retribution for the deaths and injuries of protesters during the anti-Mubarak uprising or over the past two years is a rallying cry for youth groups. Most policemen charged of involvement in the killings have been acquitted.
On Tuesday, a Cairo court sentenced a police sniper, Mahmoud el-Shenawi, to three years in prison for attempted murder of five men during protests in Cairo in November 2011. Activists see the sentence as too light.
El-Shenawi became notorious as the "eye sniper" among activists after he was shown in footage shooting at protesters and aiming at their eyes. A number of protesters were blinded by police fire in clashes.