After police withdrew, Port Said residents press demands for justice

Osman El Sharnoubi, Port Said, Friday 8 Mar 2013

Though army units replace police in Egypt's uneasy Port Said after days of clashes with anti-government protesters, residents remain adamant that their demands for justice be met

Port Said city
People against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi carry the body of Ahmed Galal, who died during clashes between police and demonstrators, during his funeral in Port Said city (Photo: AP)

Mourners in Egypt's Port Said, where the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean Sea, prayed for two protesters killed on Thursday during clashes with police near the local security directorate.

An Egyptian flag bearing the words 'the state of injustice' fluttered above the praying crowds, who then walked along the central 23 July Boulevard in a funeral procession in which thousands chanted against the interior ministry and President Mohamed Morsi.

Ahmed Abdel-Halim and Karim Atout are the latest victims of intermittent clashes that the city has seen since 26 January, when a court verdict sentenced 21 Port Said residents to death for their involvement in the February 2012 Port Said stadium disaster.

A shared feeling of injustice permeates the city as residents believe the verdict was politicised. They say there is evidence showing that the sentences were arbitrary and the defendants were scapegoated to hide the disaster's real perpetrators.

The stadium tragedy, in which fans of Port Said's Al-Masry football club attacked counterparts from Cairo's Ahly club – killing over 70 of them – is largely believed to have been orchestrated by security forces and the army, both of which did little to stop the violence.

After January's court verdict, violent clashes broke out between protesters and security forces at the Port Said Prison, where the accused were being held. The ensuing violence left over 40 dead, mostly protesters.

This week, another eight were killed – including three policemen – as clashes continued, stoking popular anger against the authorities. 

Early on Friday, the military announced the withdrawal of all police from the security directorate. 

Protesters gathered at the square facing the directorate building and adjacent to the governor's office were adamant about continuing their sit-in and pressing on with their demands, which include "retribution" for those killed and a retrial for those they deem to have been "unjustly" sentenced.

The sting of teargas from the night before continued to linger in the air as demonstrators recounted the violence they experienced.

"Karim [Atout]'s brain fell out of his head; they shot him from far away," Nasrah Ibrahim, whom protesters call the 'mother of revolutionaries,' told Ahram Online. "He wasn’t a thug."

Atout was declared dead by the health ministry on Thursday. He died of gunshot wounds.

Another protester taking part in the sit-in, 51-year-old customs employee Ahmed Halwagi, said: "The interior ministry used extreme cruelty in dealing with the demonstrations."

"Birdshot and live ammunition were used," he told Ahram Online, pointing to the stone-littered streets. "These were all the protesters could retaliate with."

"There have been over 1000 injured protesters within a few days," he added.

Residents maintain mixed feelings on army intervention

As  tanks rolled towards the security directorate in the early hours of Friday morning, many residents hailed the army, while standing on military vehicles, chanting "The army and the people are one hand".

It was a scene reminiscent of the first army deployment prior to former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011.

Indeed, as civilian casualties in clashes with the security forces rose sharply in the last few days in Port Said, some residents had called for the army step in in order to curb what they saw as out-of-control police.

However,  others showed a degree of skepticism towards the army's move to take control over the city after the police withdrew.

Earlier on Friday morning, Brigadier-General Ahmed Wasfi, commander of Egypt's Second Army, told protesters gathered outside the security directorate and governor's office that both buildings were empty. He urged the public to help military personnel "clean up surrounding streets and return Port Said to its former glory."

However, when Wasfi added "I don’t want to see any tents erected; please help us clear the area to be able to clean it," he was met with an angry response by the crowd, some of whom cheered for the army only hours before.. 

"Where were you for the past week when the interior ministry was attacking us?" protesters asked, as others tried to calm their angered colleagues.

As Wasfi spoke, armoured military vehicles rolled in as some people chanted "The military and army are one hand." As army units took up positions around the government buildings, mixed reactions were evident among the crowd.

Revolutionary Socialists member Mohamed Wifqi told Ahram Online that he believed there was coordination between the police and the army and that the army’s replacement of the police brought one thing to mind: "People don't want to confront the army," he said.

"If the army is saving us from the police, as some believe, why didn't they come earlier before people died?" Wifqi asked, adding that the army's claim to be on the people's side was "simply an act."

Whether with the army or against it, Port Said protesters and activists interviewed by Ahram Online were insistent that their demands for justice be met.

Ali Aref, a driver and protester, told Ahram Online that an independent committee must investigate all the violent events that took place in Port Said, beginning with last year's stadium tragedy.

"We will continue our sit-in until a committee with a conscience arrives," Aref said.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Ibrahim El-Masri, a former Al-Masry club football player and spokesperson for the families of those slapped with death sentences, called the army deployment "irrelevant."

"Who cares about the police withdrawal? Our demands haven't been met. The army isn't protecting us. Have they done anything to meet our demands?" El-Masri asked.

Opening a new investigation into the Port Said stadium disaster and the prosecution of those responsible for the death and injury of protesters topped the demands cited by El-Masri.

A second verdict announcing the sentences of the case's remaining defendants – including a handful of security officials – is expected on Saturday. 

Confirmation of the earlier death sentences is also expected. Egypt's Grand Mufti, who is tasked with approving all death sentences delivered by Egypt's judiciary, has raised the possibility of postponing approval of the sentences to allow for more time to review the case.

Port Said's reaction to the mufti's approval, along with possible additional sentences, appears to pale in the face of protesters' initial demands.

"We will continue our sit-in," Ibrahim told Ahram Online. "We will redeem our martyrs."

"We're giving them another week to meet our demands, until next Friday – otherwise we will escalate," said El-Masri, declining to elaborate.  

The accused, meanwhile, have been transferred out of Port Said Prison to undisclosed locations outside the city.

Members of the Ultras Ahlawy, hardcore fans of Cairo's Ahly football club, for their part, have vowed to wreak havoc in the event that the defendants receive light sentences.

As of Friday evening, the area around Port Said's security directorate and governor's office appeared calm – for the first time in days – as the army took up positions around the empty buildings.

Protesters, meanwhile, remain gathered at the scene.


Ahram Online will provide live coverage of the court verdict in the Port Said massacre case on Saturday morning

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