Egypt's leader mulls army takeover of restive city

Tuesday - 3/5/2013, 5:26pm EST

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- A security agency headquarters was set on fire as protesters battled police for a third straight day in Port Said on Tuesday, and Egypt's Islamist president considered handing the military full control of the restive Mediterranean coastal city in a sign of the collapse of control there.

A handover to the military would be recognition of the failure of President Mohammed Morsi's government to bring calm to Port Said, which has been in turmoil since late January. Furious at the president and the security forces, residents have been waging campaign of protests and strikes amounting to an outright revolt against the central government.

But Morsi appeared to back down from the idea. Tuesday evening, his office issued a statement denying Morsi had made such a decision and underlining that the police remain "the main authority in charge of securing the city." Military spokesman Ahmed Mohammed Ali also denied Morsi had asked the army to take over.

The reluctance to call in the military could reflect the multiple conflicting interests and rivalries in Egypt's halls of power. Morsi likely is loath to hand the generals greater authority. Amid increasing tensions with Morsi's administration, the military is hesitant to be seen to be acting on his behalf and risk a clash with protesters. And the Interior Ministry, in charge of domestic security forces, may be resisting the humiliation of having security duties in the city taken from its hands -- setting a possible precedent for doing so in other parts of Egypt.

But the turmoil deepened the perception of confusion in Egypt's leadership in the face of months of unrest that has been mounting around the country, though the heaviest protests have been in Port Said, where three civilians and three policemen have been killed and hundreds injured since Sunday.

The violence comes ahead of parliamentary elections, which begin in April but which the opposition is boycotting.

Police appeared to be digging in their heels in Port Said, located at the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal. Reinforcements, including armored vehicles and riot police, arrived in the city Tuesday even as clashes with protesters continued into the night. A fire erupted in the ground floor of the National Security Agency headquarters during fighting between police firing tear gas and birdshot and protesters throwing stones and firebombs.

At least 150 people were injured in the clashes, including 12 wounded by live ammunition and birdshot, according to Health Ministry official Salah el-Afani.

"It is like a civil war right now," said Mohammed Youssef, a member of April 6, one of the youth groups that engineered the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. "We can't tell what would be like in the coming day because every day is getting worse than the day before."

Port Said's protesters largely see the military positively -- particularly after troops on Sunday fired over the heads of police in an attempt to push them back from clashes with protesters outside police headquarters. On Monday, soldiers protected the funeral processions of protesters killed in the fighting and have largely stood by when protesters torched government buildings.

Morsi met with his security chief and top military officers to discuss the idea of pulling police out of the city and putting the military fully in charge of the city in hopes that would bring calm, officials from the military and the president's office said.

"The presidency is considering this option after relations between the security apparatus and the people of Port Said deteriorated," said one official in the president's office.

The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about the deliberations.

Some opponents of Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood have called on the military to take back power nationwide to end the unrest that first erupted in November and has since spiraled out of control. The mainly liberal and secular opposition accuse the Brotherhood of dominating power and say the unrest shows the group is incapable of dealing with the country's multiple woes.

Morsi's Islamist supporters have accused the opposition of trying to use street violence to overturn their repeated victories in elections since Mubarak's fall.

There have also been growing signs of tensions between the president and the head of the military, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The general has made several statements believed to have strained ties, including saying he would never allow the military to be dominated by the Brotherhood and signaling the military's readiness to intervene in politics. Brotherhood officials have in past weeks stepped up criticism of the military.