Egypt's Port Said on edge ahead of controversial court verdict

Karim Hafez in Port Said, Thursday 7 Mar 2013

Decision to transfer Port Said prisoners out of city prompts protesters to attack local security directorate; syndicates, youth groups organise ahead of Saturday's Port Said trial verdict

Port Said
An Egyptian protester kicks a tear gas canister fired by riot police, not pictured, during clashes near a state security building in Port Said, Egypt (Photo: AP)

Port Said, one of the most prominent canal cities, has been recently hit by a wave of violence in ongoing clashes between Egyptian security forces and protesters; further turmoil is expected ahead of the second Port Said football court verdict scheduled for 9 March.

The recent decision to transfer the prisoners convicted or facing charges for their role in the February 2012 Port Said stadium disaster to an unknown location outside of the city revived unrest in the canal city, as thousands reportedly have attacked the security directorate since Sunday. Clashes are still ongoing.

There is no police presence in the city, and army units are spread all over. In response, citizens have formed popular committees to organise traffic.

"Traffic police have disappeared from the city for the third time in less than two months, so we decided to form popular committees to organise traffic in the city’s main streets like El-Thalathiny,"ِ Ahmed Said, owner of a stationery shop in El-Thalathiny Street, told Ahram Online.

Huge banners cover the city's streets with pictures of slain protesters that have been killed in the violence after a court verdict issued on 26 January sentenced 21 out of 73 defendants to death for their involvement in the Port Said football riot.

"Revenge is our duty towards the martyrs," one banner read.

Other signs on Port Said's walls, such as "Injustice leads to explosion" and "Together we will resist injustice," denounce the 'injustice' the city has been subjected to since the Port Said Stadium disaster last year.

"The courageous city will forever be resilient," read another slogan spread around the city.

The city is dominated by growing feelings of "injustice" and the urge to take "revenge." Most Port Said residents believe the police have been using extreme violence against protesters, following the 26 January court verdict that led to violent clashes and resulted in more than 40 people killed, mostly civilians, and during the city's most recent protests.

"The decision [to relocate the prisoners] was taken without the knowledge of the local authorities; the families of the prisoners have the right to know the whereabouts of their children. The injustice against Port Said must come to an end," said renowned leftist politician and former MP El-Badry Farghaly.

The ‘Martyrs Square,’ located in central Port Said, that was once erected to honour the fallen heroes and 'martyrs' during the Tripartite Aggression in 1956, is now a battle zone with parts of the governorate building and the security directorate destroyed after being set ablaze.

"Protests are not as intense now as the past days. The police have been using live ammunition against the protesters and extreme force since Sunday. On Monday, the police even shot at a nearby shop and broken glass fell on protesters," Mahmoud El-Makhzangi, activist and founding member of the Port Said youth bloc, told Ahram Online.

"A 17-year-old was killed yesterday by Egyptian riot police after the police threw a ceramic bloc from the roof of the governorate at the teenager. At least three others have been killed since Sunday, most of them youth, and hundreds have been injured," El-Makhzangi explained.

Almost 177 people were injured since 3 March, according to the Ministry of Health.

Army units are strategically positioned in front of the entrance of the Port Said governorate, the building adjacent to the security directorate, maintaining a neutral stance. Occasionally, the army will clear the path for ambulances and help citizens in distress.

However, reports of the army units clashing with the police have been recurrent in the past days.

"On Monday night, an army brigadier fired at a police armoured car in an attempt to push it back away from protesters. This has occurred several times since the beginning of the clashes," said member of the Ultras Green Eagles group Mahmoud Abu Zekry.

The Ministry of Defence has denied those reports on several occasions since the beginning of the clashes on 3 March.

"I am positioned at the Tarh El-Bahr Street right in the vicinity of the directorate for three weeks now, and this has never happened. We are cooperating with the Ministry of Interior to keep the situation under control," army captain Ahmed Goweily told Ahram Online.

Clashes remain ongoing in front of the Port Said security directorate with different youth groups, including Egypt's Ultras Ahlawy groups, calling for a sit-ins and protests on 9 March.

'Civil disobedience' and mass mobilisation

There are talks on civil disobedience all over the city among Port Said residents. A famous hotel situated in what was once a touristic hotspot "Al Noures" has covered its entrances with black ribbons as a sign of mourning and in "solidarity with the civil disobedience."

"The black ribbons is to protest the death of our children, and the injustice the city is subjected to, I refuse to turn on music or any signs of joy as solidarity with the civil disobedience," Samir Gouda, executive manager at the Nores Hotel, told Ahram Online.

Calls for civil disobedience have been launched as a reaction to the death of almost 43 protesters in front of the Port Said prison following the controversial verdict.

Schools all over the city are completely closed; students and teachers have decided not to return despite the governor’s decision to continue classes.

"We as students decided not to resume classes in protest of the death of our colleague Ahmed Samy, a high school student. Schools have been halted until this day," said Ahmed Mohsen, student activist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists student movement in Port Said.

16-year-old Ahmed Samy was shot dead in front of the Port Said prison on 26 January.

Teachers, represented in the Port Said Teachers Coalition, have also supported the move by deciding to go on strike.

"The step had to be taken, our students are our children, their safety is our priority, and we will not resume teaching until the safety of our students is ensured," said the head of the Teachers Coalition Mohamed Zakarey.

Other syndicates have also taken solidarity steps to support the ‘civil disobedience' campaign that began on 17 February.

"The Doctors Syndicate is organising to ensure that those injured from the clashes are not denied access to hospitals. We support any calls of civil disobedience, however, we did not refrain from working due to the vital nature of our work," Ahmed Attia, member of the Doctors Syndicate in Port Said, told Ahram Online.

The investment zone in Port Said, home of over 50 factories and almost 40,000 workers, remains fully operational despite the calls for acts of civil disobedience.

"Workers of the investment zone have absolutely no job security and therefore they are at risk of getting fired if they decide to strike," explained Mohamed El-Ogiri, labour activist and syndicalist in Port Said.

"There are signs of social protest, mass organisation and general sympathy towards the cause that is escalating day by day. However, it is not accurate to describe what's happening as civil disobedience," El-Ogiri explained.

Most shops, restaurants and cafes that are not located in the vicinity of the directorate are open for business.

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