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Egypt Braces for More Unrest Over Football Riot Case

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Egyptian protesters throw stones at riot police during clashes near a state security building in Port Said, March 7, 2013.

Egyptian protesters throw stones at riot police during clashes near a state security building in Port Said, March 7, 2013.

Egyptians are bracing for further unrest ahead of Saturday's expected sentencing of more than 50 men in last year's deadly Port Said stadium riot.

In the first round of sentencing in January, 21 men, most of them Port Said residents, were condemned to death, sparking violent protests in the port city and other towns along the Suez Canal. The protests merged with anti-government actions across the country marking two years since revolution plunged Egypt into an era of uncertainty.

In the past few days, at least six people have been killed and dozens more injured as tensions surrounding the case continued to escalate.

While Saturday's sentencing is most likely to affect Port Said hardest, former Al-Masry Al-Youm publisher and democracy activist Hisham Kassem warns it will exacerbate deep political divisions across the nation.

"I don't think that the violence that will result from the ruling is going to be contained to Port Said in that case, but it seems to be spreading because of the deteriorating face of authority in Egypt," he said.

President Mohamed Morsi and his government have been facing calls from street protesters and the opposition to step down or, at the least, form a more inclusive unity government to move through the current crisis.

Tensions between the Islamist leader and his secular, nationalist and anarchist opponents are compounding an economic crisis that risks bankrupting the country within months.

Lines to buy gasoline, power cuts and rising prices bring the problems home daily; security concerns have forced key government offices to close.

Political analyst and former intelligence officer General Sameh Seif al Yazal says it is not clear how well the government — the interior ministry in particular — can maintain control.

"Egypt now is in the phase of 'fragile state,' which is the last phase before collapsing the entire country, and I can see that in front of me," he said.

Hopes that Egypt's political transition process would begin wrapping up next month with parliamentary elections were dealt a new blow this week, with a court challenge to the proceedings.

Even if the elections go ahead on time, some opposition parties have pledged a boycott.

The unrest has sparked speculation in the Egyptian media that the military might intervene, as it did following the ousting of the old government. But publisher Kassem says that despite efforts by the Morsi government to get the military on its side, the armed forces may be reluctant to deploy.

"If they do deploy, they will not deploy to keep President Morsi in power as much as they will deploy to regain stability in the country," he said. "That might entail they insist on Morsi resigning before they deploy to avoid being perceived as deploying to save an unpopular, failed president."

The government hopes to reverse the slide by offering talks with the opposition and by receiving further financial help from such countries as Qatar, and a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

But the opposition has largely rejected Morsi's overtures as insincere, while the IMF deal would entail austerity measures and possible further unrest.

There are few voices of optimism these days in the country, where some, like retired general al Yazal, see the problems as having brought about a fundamental change.

"Egypt has been known for decades that we are a very peaceful country and we are very moderate," he said. "Unfortunately, we are not moderate now and not peaceful."

Al Yazal says his point of view makes him sad, but adds that he is just "trying to be realistic."
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