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Friday, March 8, 2013

As Police Strike, Egypt Tensely Awaits Verdicts in Soccer Riot

More than 70 soccer fans were killed in a stadium riot in February 2012 that was broadcast live on Egyptian television. More verdicts in the riot are due Saturday.

As my colleague David Kirkpatrick in Cairo reported, a quickly spreading strike among the police force has added to a growing sense of chaos and lawlessness in Egypt, where opposition to President Mohamed Morsi has been newly energized in recent days by anticipation of a second round of verdicts over the deaths of more than 70 soccer fans in a stadium riot in Port Said last year.

In the first round of verdicts in January, 21 Port Said soccer fans were sentenced to death. That stunned many Egyptians and enraged residents of Port Said, sparking riots there and in other cities along the Suez Canal that killed at least 40 people and shook the state’s grip on power there.

Saturday’s verdicts will determine the culpability of police officers and officials in Port Said’s soccer club who were on duty at the time of the riot in February 2012. Rawya Rageh, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, reported on Twitter that 2,000 police officers will be present to secure the courthouse in Cairo when the verdicts are read.

In the riot last year ! at Port Said stadium, fans of the local team, Al-Masry, stormed the field after the match ended and attacked visiting fans from Cairo’s Al-Ahly soccer club. It was the deadliest soccer violence in Egypt’s history and was broadcast live on Egyptian television.

Anger at the first verdicts and the subsequent deaths of protesters at the hands of the police has left Port Said effectively shut down for weeks. Protesters have attacked police stations and burned the city’s security headquarters, and the police have killed several protesters in the process.

Port Said was largely quiet on Friday as the army moved in to secure the city and protesters buried their dead. Jonathan Rashad, an Egyptian photojournalist, posted an update on Twitter from the funeral of two men killed in this week’s clashes.

The government’s problems in Port Said may have provided a spark to the police strike, which may have begun when 2,000 riot police officers in the Suez Canal city of Ismai’lia refused to deploy to Port Said. The strike has since spread to at least 60 police stations and 10 riot police training camps, reported Ahram Online, an English-language news site affiliated with a state-run newspaper, including 7 in and around the capital.

In the central Egyptian city of Assiut, members of Gama’a Islameyya, a former Islamic militant group, said they would begin policing the streets because the ! city’s ! police were all on strike. The Associated Press quoted the local security chief, Gen. Aboul-Kassem Deif, saying it was illegal for the group to act as the police, but “I don’t know what to do.”

Striking police officers have also refused to protect the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the family home of Mr. Morsi in a rural province, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent Egyptian newspaper. Sherief Gaber, an opposition activist andmember of Cairo’s Mosireen media collective, joked about the police insubordination in an update posted to Twitter.

Officers on strike have demanded the resignation of Mohamed Ibrahim, the interior minister appointed by Mr. Morsi, and many have said they were fed up with the frequent street battles with protesters in the two years since the overthrow of former President Mubarak. Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that protesting policemen in Alexandria carried banners that read “Leave, Brot! herhood M! inister” and “The police is in service to the people, not killers.”

In response to the strike, Mr. Ibrahim fired the chief of the Central Security Forces, the riot police used as government shock troops during protests and street battles.

Issandr el-Amrani, a political analyst who blogs at The Arabist, posted an update to Twitter that suggested the gravity of the situation.

A blogger who writes under the name The Big Pharaoh compared the police strike with a mutiny by the Central Security Forces in 1986, when thousands of officers revolted against President Mubarak, who at the time had been in power for only five years. More officers appeared to be participating in this week’s wave of strikes than took part in the 1986 mutiny.

On Friday, police officers in Port Said joined the strike. Bel Trew, a British journalist with Ahram Online who was in Port Said, interviewed striking police officers holed up inside a police station. She said they watched Bassem Youssef, a talk show host who has made a career of humorous attacks on President Morsi.

As the police withdrew from the city’s main security headquarters and grumbled about Mr. Morsi inside their stations, the military deployed to Port Said to secure the city. Residents greeted them enthusiastically, Ms. Trew said. She reported on Twitter that the military helped residents remove the Ministry of Interior’s flag from the security headquarters.

People loving army right now in #PortSaid military just helped them take down MOI flag from building http://t.co/0Dgfpnpamv

â€" Bel Trew - بل ترو (@Beltrew) 8 Mar 13

Ahram Online posted video to YouTube that shows army vehicles driving through a cheering crowd in Port Said. The video then shows a uniformed soldier on the roof of the city security headquarters helping a civilian pull down the Interior Ministry flag. The crowd chanted, “The army and people are one hand,” a slogan from the earliest days of the uprising against Mr. Mubarak.

Video posted to YouTube shows the military deploying to Port Said amid a spreading police strike.

While some police officers went on strike, others continued to clash with protesters in cities across the country on Friday. In Ca! iro, a pi! tched battle took place in an upscale Nile-side neighborhood that is home to the British and American embassies and a number of large hotels.

On Thursday, street battles in the same location produced a surrealscene: employees from the Semiramis Hotel, including bellhops, desk clerks and cooks in chef’s hats, picking up clubs and stones to defend the building from men they feared were looters. Al-Youm Al-Sabea, an Egyptian news Web site, posted video of the episode on YouTube.

Employees of the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo defended the building with clubs and stones.

As people across the! country ! anxiously waited for the verdicts to be read on Saturday morning, Samer Al-Atrush, a Cairo-based journalist, jokingly hoped for the best in an update posted to Twitter.