Egypt soccer protests hit restive Suez Canal city

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 17, 2013 21:00 hrs

Thousands of soccer fans enforced a work stoppage Sunday in Egypt's restive city of Port Said to protest what they called government "injustices," disrupting rail services and forcefully evicting workers from factories and provincial government offices.

Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi had declared a state of emergency and 30-day curfew in Port Said and two other Suez Canal provinces following a wave of violence that left more than 50 people dead last month. The state of emergency is still in effect, although residents have ignored the curfew.

The continuing turbulence in Port Said, which last month was virtually in revolt against Morsi's government and the emergency measures, is another fresh sign of Egypt's deepening malaise. The government is struggling to impose order as discontent widens beyond the capital, Cairo, as social and economic problems mount.

Morsi is also facing an increasingly vocal political opposition which complains that he and his Islamist backers in the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest political force, are attempting to monopolize power and have adopted practices similar to longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak was forced to step down in the face of popular protests in 2011 after ruling Egypt for nearly 30 years under a tight security regime.

Last month's violence in Port Said was set off when a court convicted and sentenced 21 people to death for involvement in a mass soccer riot in the city's main stadium on Feb. 1, 2012 that left 74 dead. Most of those killed in the melee were visiting fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly team.

The verdict enraged people in Port Said, where the majority of the condemned were local soccer fans, many of whom claim innocence. The ensuing security crackdown deepened a sense of persecution that residents have harbored since the stadium disaster, the worst soccer violence ever to hit Egypt.

As part of the Sunday protest, members of the "Green Eagles" fan club, supporters of Port Said's Al-Masry team, also disrupted the city's main telephone exchange and sent students home from several schools.

Several hundreds of protesters marched through the Mediterranean city at the mouth of the Suez Canal, chanting against the government and raising pictures of those killed in the violence.

"The city's revolt comes because of a deep sense of injustice," a statement by the Green Eagles said. The group said the verdict exonerated state institutions — including the interior ministry and the military — which it said should be held responsible for failing to prevent the massacre.

The situation was aggravated, the group said, by the use of gunfire by the interior ministry against unarmed civilians under orders from the regime.

The group called for retribution and compensation for those killed during the recent unrest, and a retrial for those found guilty in the soccer massacre.

There was no immediate government comment on the situation in Port Said.

The Popular Current group, one of the main opposition groups, expressed its support for the Port Said work stoppages Sunday, saying the city's anger is "part of the popular anger" against Morsi.

"What is happening in Port Said is a legitimate right in the face of an authority that has adopted repression and tyranny," the group said in a statement.

In an attempt to contain the rising tensions, opposition leaders and Morsi have been negotiating over ground rules for holding a dialogue.

In a rare in sit-down meeting late Saturday, leading opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei met with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party — the Freedom and Justice Party.

The opposition is demanding a national unity government, an amendment to the constitution which they say was rushed through without a national consensus and an election law that does not favor the Brotherhood.

The FJP party said in a statement however that its leader Saad el-Katatni saw a government reshuffle as "unfavorable" ahead of new parliamentary elections, expected later this year.

Ahmed ElBorai, a member of ElBaradei's party, said the opposition will boycott elections if the current impasse is not overcome. He was speaking to the privately owned CBC TV station.

Meanwhile, in a new sign of tension between the Brotherhood and its allies in the ultraconservative Salafi movement, Morsi fired one of his advisers from the Salafi Al-Nour party. Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali announced the dismissal of Khaled Alam Eldin, adviser for environmental affairs, without giving details.

Another official in the presidency, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, said Alam Eldin was fired over reports of abuse of power.

Eldin, who went public with criticism of Morsi and the government before his sacking, told news website Al-Ahram Online that he was not officially informed of his dismissal and that he is meeting with his party to decide a response. His party has been pushing for a government reshuffle and has hosted meetings with the opposition to prepare for talks with Morsi.

In a recent posting on his Facebook page, Alam Eldin said Egyptians are teetering between hope and despair over the failure of the government and the presidency to achieve the goals of the 2011 uprising, including social justice and better living conditions.

"The presidency has stumbled in its attempts to reach a national consensus that brings the people together ... and sets the foundation for a state of institutions, instead of a state based on secrets, secret meetings and confused decisions," he wrote.