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Mursi mulls army takeover of Port Said

(AP) / 5 March 2013

CAIRO — The Egyptian 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 on Tuesday.

Mohammed Mursi met with his security chief and top military officers to discuss pulling out the police force and putting the military in charge to defuse the cycle of violence that has gripped the city, officials from the military and the president’s office said.

The latest round of rioting and violence in Port Said, which erupted on Sunday, has killed at least three civilians and three policemen and injured hundreds.

“The presidency is considering this option after relations between the security apparatus and the people of Port Said deteriorated,” said one of the officials. 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 military sent reinforcement to Port Said late on Monday, after protesters torched a government building and police headquarters there. Witnesses said protesters lay down and slept on the asphalt to prevent fire engines from reaching the buildings on fire.

The officials said police have lost control over the city and the only way out was to hand it over to the military, which enjoys considerable support among Port Said residents.

Mursi’s deliberations come amid reports of tense relations between the president and the country’s Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi following a rumor that the minister could be sacked because he resisted to bring the military under the sway of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood group.

Some opposition groups and figures want to see the military take over power after perceiving the country’s new Islamist leadership as incapable of ending Egypt’s deteriorating economy and increasing unrest.

The turmoil in Port Said started on Jan. 26, the day a court in the city on the northern edge of the Suez Canal handed down death sentences against 21 mostly Port Said residents over their involvement in a deadly February 2012 soccer riot in the city 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 defuse a possible eruption of violence in the capital, Cairo, Morsi’s seat of power. Ahead of the court’s decision, die-hard Al-Ahly fans had warned of “pools of blood” if the sentences were light.

In the first wave of violence after the verdicts, more than 40 people died in the city. Port Said residents allege Morsi gave the green light for excessive use of force by the police.

Morsi then imposed a curfew and a state of emergency in Port Said and two other Suez Canal cities, deploying the military to impose law and order. However, the orders were defied by the residents, who held night rallies during curfew hours until the measure was eased.

The city continued with a civil disobedience campaign and general strikes, for over two weeks, demanding Morsi open an investigation into the latest killings.

Violence flared anew on Sunday, when Port Said residents took to the streets following reports that other defendants still on trial in the deadly soccer riot were moved from the local prison ahead of their March 9 verdicts.

Egypt is in a deep crisis amid stark polarization between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and the mostly liberal and secular opposition parties, which accuse the Islamists of monopolizing power two years after the 2011 ouster of longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.

The Islamists argue that they came to power through the ballot box in the first free elections after the uprising that ousted Mubarak.

The Port Said unrest comes only a few weeks ahead of the parliamentary elections, which are due to start in April and which the opposition is boycotting.

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