Egypt’s army intervenes in Port Said clashes
PORT SAID, Egypt (AP) — The military intervened in clashes between thousands of protesters and police in a restive Egyptian canal city on Sunday, the latest in a cycle of violence that killed two security members and two civilians, and which continues to rock Egypt two years after the uprising that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
Also on Sunday, a court ruled that Mubarak will face a new trial next month on charges related to the killings of hundreds of protesters during the revolution that forced him from power.
Around 5,000 protesters threw rocks and firebombs at police in Port Said late Sunday, the scene of a civil strike now in its second week. Riot police responded with tear gas and bird shot in street battles that lasted for hours.
The battle outside the police and government buildings started early Sunday and continued until past midnight. At one point, Egyptian soldiers intervened by forming a line between the two sides, as protesters climbed the tanks chanting support for the country’s armed forces that, unlike the police, have not cracked down on rioters in the city. “The people and the army are one hand!” the demonstrators shouted, urging the soldiers to side with them.
Late on Sunday, the military spokesman denied that soldiers were firing at the police in a short statement indicating the tense situation.
“The armed forces personnel are on the scene to protect the government building and to separate the protesters and the interior ministry force,” military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali said in a statement posted on his official Facebook page.
Health official Helmy el-Afani said 325 people were injured in the clashes. Most suffered tear gas inhalation while others were wounded by bird shot. The Interior Ministry said one policeman was killed by gunfire, and one soldier and at least 10 policemen were wounded. A medical official in Port Said later said one of the policemen died of his gunshot wounds and two civilians were killed but the cause of their deaths was not immediately clear. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Many residents of Port Said are demanding retribution for what they claim was excessive police force that led to the deaths of more than 40 civilians in late January. Most were killed during what the security forces said was an attempt by some to storm a prison there.
The embattled Interior Ministry, which oversees Egypt’s police force, was unable to contain the anger in the city at the time and the president leaned on the military to protect key installations and buildings. Sunday was the first time the army intervened between police and protesters in Port Said since the military was put in charge of securing the city in late January. The police had all but disappeared since.
Protests swept the city Jan. 26 after a Cairo court issued death sentences against 21 people, most from Port Said, for their part in Egypt’s deadliest soccer riot in February 2012.
The latest street battles broke out when word emerged that 39 defendants in the case had been transferred to prisons outside the city. A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the case, said the transfer was necessary to ensure calm before a March 9 court hearing that is expected to issue new verdicts for police officers and other Port Said defendants also charged in connection with the soccer incident.
In Cairo, die-hard soccer fans of the Al-Ahly club, known as the Ultras, are also gearing up for the March 9 verdict. They staged protests around the capital on Sunday that blocked traffic going to the airport, and closed off an area around the central bank.
Most of those killed in the Port Said stadium were Al-Ahly Ultras fans, and the group is pressing for retribution from Port Said soccer fans as well as security officials.
In Cairo, police briefly cleared protesters from Tahrir Square — once the epicenter of protests against Mubarak. The demonstrators, who have held a sit-in there for the past three months, returned soon after, burning two police vehicles near the famed Egyptian Museum. By nightfall, a handful protesters and riot police continued to clash along a major street near the square.
Amid the tension, President Mohammed Morsi met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Cairo for more than two hours on Sunday, a day after the top American diplomat met six opposition figures out of 11 who were invited. The other five declined to meet Kerry because of Washington’s insistence that all Egyptians take part in next month’s elections.
Morsi and his government argue that parliamentary elections will help put the country on the right track, enabling him and the legislature to tackle a deteriorating economy.
But the opposition argues that elections are likely to inflame the already tense atmosphere and have called for a boycott of the vote. The mostly liberal and secular opposition accuses the Islamist president of failing to seek consensus over critical issues, such as the drafting of the constitution and the elections law. Morsi opponents accuse him of working to empower his Muslim Brotherhood and ensuring its lock on power.
Meanwhile, the opposition has threatened to escalate its anti-government street campaign and organize its boycott of the elections.
The retrial of Mubarak, beginning April 13, is likely to intensify the tense political atmosphere in Egypt. It is due to start about a week before the beginning of parliamentary elections.
Many Egyptians want to see a conviction against Mubarak that leads to a death sentence for the former autocrat for his role in the crackdown that killed nearly 900 people during the 2011 uprising against his regime. Mubarak, 84, has been in detention since April 2011 and is currently being held in a military hospital.
He and his former interior minister were each sentenced in June to life in prison for failing to prevent the killing of demonstrators during the 18-day uprising that ended his 29-year rule. In January, an appeals court overturned the sentences and ordered a retrial, raising public anger over what was seen as a shoddy prosecution in the first case.
Morsi promised during his election campaign that he would put former regime officials back on trial if new evidence was discovered.
The proceedings in Mubarak’s retrial could help resolve unanswered questions over who ordered the crackdown and who executed it. Nearly all security officials were acquitted in separate trials related to the deaths of protesters.
In January, the appeals court ruled that during Mubarak’s first trial, the prosecution’s case lacked concrete evidence and failed to prove the protesters were killed by the police, indirectly giving credence to the testimony of top Mubarak-era officials that “foreigners” and others were behind the killings between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, 2011.
Authors of a recently concluded confidential report by a fact-finding mission appointed by Morsi told reporters that they have established the use of deadly firearms by the police against protesters.
Judge Samir Aboul-Maati said the retrial before a criminal court will include six other senior security officials who were acquitted in the first trial.
Mubarak’s two sons and a business associate also will be retried on corruption charges. The sons, onetime heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa, are in jail while on trial for insider trading and using their influence to buy state land at a fraction of its market value. Their business associate, Hussein Salem, was tried in absentia. He is currently in Spain.
El Deeb and Associated Press Writer Aya Batrawy contributed reporting from Cairo.