Port Said violence escalates ahead of contentious Saturday verdict

Another life has been claimed in a fifth day of clashes between police and protesters in the Egyptian city of Post Said, amid ongoing political turmoil. The crowd is demanding the release of prisoners charged over last year’s soccer stadium massacre.

Port Said, at the northern end of the Suez Canal, has been a hotspot since January, plagued by violent protests over detentions and death sentences following a soccer stadium riot that took the lives of 74 people last year.

The match itself was plagued by security irregularities and many commented on police inaction, while the list of accused only involved members of the Port Said team’s supporters and not the opposition. Add to that a delay in the trial of police officers involved.

Egyptian-American journalist from 'Democracy Now', Sharif Kouddous, told RT how difficult it would be to avoid confrontation with both sides in the event of either verdict.

“If the security officials are seen as innocent or getting off with a light sentence, then both sides will be very angry and this lingering sense of injustice that has been hanging over Egypt for the past two years will really ignite on the streets of Port Said or Cairo.,” he said.

The imprisoned youths were being moved on Thursday from one prison to another unknown location. Their families have been experiencing a sense of injustice from the government and worried that their loved ones would not be guaranteed adequate protection. That is how the clashes began.

The precursor to Thursday’s violence began Wednesday, when masked youths had gathered at various government buildings in the coastal city, throwing stones and chanting “dirty government!” as the police responded with smoke bombs. When on Thursday they started using teargas to disperse the demonstrators, the crowd erupted.

Since the start of this latest spate of violence on March 3, at least seven people have been killed and hundreds wounded. The Thursday victim is Karim Atout, 33, who, according to a Health Ministry official’s statement to Reuters, “died from a gunshot to the head after doctors’ efforts failed to revive him.” RT’s Bel Trew, who was present during the Thursday clashes, said there were reports of live ammunition used by the security forces.

It is widely believed that the 21 of 39 prisoners will probably get their death sentences approved by the Mufti at a court hearing in Port Said on Saturday. When they were charged in January, the ensuing violence between law enforcement and civilians had claimed at least 40 lives. The government says they will increase security around the prison and courthouse on the day of the ruling.

Speaking to RT, political blogger Iskander Wael stressed that disproportionate justice was being delivered: “[This is] certainly not a fair trial. A lot of the judiciary here is highly politicized. You can’t expect any justice to come out of [it]…but one of the more important things to look into is that the sentences on the policemen were postponed till March 9. It seems that the whole verdict is just a way to manage the country’s political crisis, rather than to bring about justice.”

Ever since President Hosni Mubarak was deposed in the Egyptian popular uprising of two years ago, security in Port Said has been steadily deteriorating. There is a widespread feeling that the city has become neglected by the central government in Cairo, that its demonstrators are treated differently, and that the security forces are a part of the government’s brutal hand. There is also talk of current President Mohamed Morsi substituting the police force in Port Said for the military.

However, the police have been carrying out their own strikes across Egypt. Officers have made it clear that their actions are intended to show the force’s neutrality in the unrest, and that they refuse to have their actions politicized on any level. That is what they told Egypt’s news agency MENA. When dozens protested peacefully in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria, they chanted the words, “the police are not against the people.”

Egypt has been in a state of chaos since the start of Morsi’s presidency. The country believes he is not carrying out the goals set during the revolution of 2011, and many want him to relinquish power.