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updated: 3/5/2013 9:16 AM

Egypt's leader mulls army takeover of Suez Canal city

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  • Riot police clash with protesters in Port Said, Egypt, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. 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.

      Riot police clash with protesters in Port Said, Egypt, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. 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.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

CAIRO -- 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 of the city to the military would be a recognition of the failure of Mohammed Morsi's government to bring calm to Port Said, which has been in turmoil since late January. With protests and strikes that have turned into an outright revolt, residents have been venting their fury at both the president and the security forces.

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A third day of clashes erupted at around daybreak Tuesday as police opened fire with tear gas and birdshot at protesters throwing stones and firebombs at the local headquarters of the National Security Agency, setting part of the building on fire. The latest round of rioting and violence in Port Said has left at least three civilians and three policemen dead and hundreds injured since Sunday.

Port Said's protesters largely see the military more positively. Some cheered and chanted "the people and army are one hand" Sunday when troops 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 they would halt the unrest if the army took control.

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 the uprising that ousted Mubarak.

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 do favor such a move see it as a way to break the Brotherhood grip on power.

But 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," Galal Nasser, chief-editor of Al-Ahram Weekly and a fellow at the Nasser Military Academy, said.

"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 criticisms 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. Witnesses said protesters lay down and slept on the asphalt to prevent fire engines from reaching the buildings on fire.

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.

The verdicts sparked a wave of protests that 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.

Morsi then imposed a curfew and a state of emergency in Port Said and two other Suez Canal cities, though the orders were widely defied. The military deployed in Port Said at the time but refused to crack down on protesters. 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, which the opposition is boycotting.

In Cairo, skirmishes erupted on Tuesday between street protesters and riot police in a main street overlooking the Nile, a day after protesters sat fire on police vehicles in the same area cutting roads and blocking traffic.

Seeking retribution for deaths and injuries of thousands of Egyptians during the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising or over the past two years is a rallying cause for youth groups at a time most of policemen charged of involvement in the killings were acquitted for lack of evidence.

Most recently, a Cairo court sentenced a police sniper, Mohamoud el-Shenawi, to three years in prison for attempted murder of five men during protests in Cairo in November 2011. Many 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. In footage widely circulated on social media, a nearby soldier is heard praising his ability to target the eyes. A number of protesters were blinded by police fire in those and other clashes.

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