Unrest in Egyptian city draws in military

Monday - 3/4/2013, 8:30pm EST

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Clashes between protesters and the police in in the restive Egyptian city of Port Said that entered their second day Monday have dragged in the military to a dramatic extent into the nation's turmoil.

At times in the violence, frictions have arisen between the police that were battling protesters and army forces that tried to break up the fighting. Troops in between the two sides were overwhelmed by police tear gas, one army colonel was wounded by live fire, and troops even opened fire over the heads of police, bringing cheers from protesters.

Three policemen and three civilians were killed in the fighting, and troops stood by as protesters torched a government complex Monday that contains the city's main police building.

The scenes, following three weeks of strikes and protests in the city, have underlined a scenario that many in Egypt view with a mix of concern and relief -- that the military may move back into politics, prompted by mushrooming protests, a breakdown in law and order and mounting challenges to the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Some opponents of Morsi have outright called for the military to take power, and even those who say they oppose a military return have used the prospect to pressure Morsi to find some consensus in the country's political crisis.

Prominent opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei warned of decaying state institutions and rising levels of violence.

"The regime in its current form is unable to manage the country," he wrote on his Twitter account. "There must be a radical review before it is too late."

Unable to halt the violence, both the police and military Monday sought to deny any tensions between them. Meanwhile, there was no official comment from the presidency following one of the worst flare-ups of violence since January.

Unrest also spread in other parts of the country. In the capital, Cairo, protesters blocked the main thoroughfare along the Nile River, and police tried to clear them with volleys of tear gas. Other disgruntled young men set fire to two police cars in two different locations in Cairo, sending police fleeing the vehicles in the middle of traffic.

The unrest in Egypt is reaching new heights, just weeks before the parliamentary elections scheduled next month, which have further enflamed an already tense political landscape.

Opposition leaders are calling for a boycott of the elections, accusing Morsi 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 lock his Muslim Brotherhood's hold on power.

"How can elections be held with the tragic situation in Port Said and as martyrs are falling there and in other provinces," former presidential candidate and leading opposition member Amr Moussa said in an email. "How can elections be held with security undermined everywhere in the nation."

Months of violence have prompted calls by some in the opposition for the military, which ruled for nearly 17 months after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, to take back power and contain the discontent.

Hundreds of Port Said residents, followed by some in other provinces, took the symbolic step of going to public registrar offices to issue "power of delegation" documents asking the military to step in "manage" the country.

Abdullah el-Sinawi, a commentator and columnist in the daily Al-Shorouk newspaper, said the "clashes between police and military which took place, even if they were limited, represent the absence of the rule of law."

Such a clash between two powerful institutions "warns of the decay of the state," he said. There were increasing signs from the generals of their displeasure with Morsi's management of the country and lack of political openness, he said, raising the specter of military intervention, perhaps not to remove Morsi but to prevent a breakdown.

Morsi supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have downplayed rising expressions of discontent. Mohammed el-Beltagi, a senior Brotherhood member, told reporters that Egyptians will never accept the military back in power.

Another senior Brotherhood member, Gamal Heshmat, told the legislature Monday that the media is portraying Port Said as if it is "on fire."

"Anyone watching from outside will think that Egypt is all Port Said," he told a parliamentary session, according to the main state-run daily, Al-Ahram.

Port Said, on the Mediterranean coast at the mouth of the Suez Canal, has been in turmoil since late January, when a Cairo court issued death sentences against 21 people, most residents of the city, for involvement in Egypt's deadliest soccer riot in February 2012. The verdicts sparked angry protests in the city, which turned into deadly clashes with police, leaving more than 40 dead, including two policemen.