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The Army and Police Are Shooting Each Other in Port Said

And the army are backing up the people of Port Said, which is good news.

For the past couple of days, downtown Port Said has played host to an uncharacteristically vicious and surreal spate of violence. You'll remember the Egyptian city as the location of the football riots that took place at the beginning of last year, claiming the lives of 74 fans from both Al-Masry, the Port Said team, and Al Ahly, their Cairo-based opponents. You also might remember it from the riots that ensued after the 21 defendants brought to trial in the riot case – all Al-Masry fans from Port Said – were sentenced to death.


On January 26th this year, outraged family members of the accused stormed the prison in Port Said in an attempt to free the condemned defendants. Police started firing guns into the mob and, in the ensuing bedlam, 41 people were killed. After the clashes, beleaguered President Mohamed Morsi declared “Emergency Law” for 30 days in Port Said and other nearby cities. Morsi sent in military units to protect important buildings and enforced a curfew from 9PM to 6AM.

That “Emergency Law” has been relaxed recently; after three days of constant protest and blatant disregard to the decree, Morsi reduced the curfew to 1AM to 5AM. However, the army contingent remained. On Sunday, several family members went to the prison to visit one of the defendants and found that the 21 prisoners had been transferred to a prison in Cairo without any notification. Word quickly spread to the other families and sure enough, soon angry people were gathering at the main precinct.

Aftermath of the death of 22-year-old Sayed Ali al-Sayed. Photo by Mahmoud Elnaggar.

The ensuing demonstration against that lack of transparency quickly became violent and protesters torched a row of police cars in front of the station. For four hours, police and protesters clashed – officers firing on the protesters from the station, despite being explicitly forbidden to use live ammunition after the fiasco three weeks ago. In addition to high calibre rounds, they also shot baseball-sized rubber projectiles and hurled stone blocks into the crowd. Sayed Ali al-Sayed, a 22-year-old high school student, was struck by a marble block thrown from the police station and killed instantly.


At 4PM, the army was called in to protect the precinct and soldiers formed a human wall between protesters and the station. Police were lined up on the other side of the street and, in an attempt to quell the situation, started firing tear gas into the fracas. An armoured assault vehicle driven by police officers began advancing towards the army and the protesters.

“Soldiers fired in the air above the police to stop them from advancing,” explained Sameh Abd El-Khalek, a local photojournalist. “The police didn’t stop, though, and kept coming forward.” The protesters soon scattered and, bizarrely, the police and army began firing live ammunition at each other. “Our campaign of civil disobedience was bloodless for 12 days,” Ahmed Medhat, a young Port Said resident, told me, “but as soon as the police became involved, blood started pouring."

Between 4PM until 3AM, the protest – relatively routine by Egyptian standards – worked its way up into a full-on battle. Most of the protesters had long since returned to their homes, leaving the police and the army to shoot it out. Soldiers and officers battled until the early morning, firing at each other from rooftops and the street. At one point, several eyewitnesses reported two armoured personnel vehicles from opposing sides driving directly at each other, guns blazing, and national news agency MENA reported that three police officers died in the clash. At 3AM, the army retreated from the battle and left the police to control the situation.


“No one could have ever imagined this would happen. To think, the police and the army would fight in the streets? Amazing,” Medhat told me. The Egyptian state has a decidedly different take on the events. Recently, Ahmed Ali, the spokesperson for Central Security Forces (Egypt’s national police contingent) took to Facebook to give the “official” account of the events. He wrote, "It is false that any armed force units in Port Said fired upon police forces during the clashes."

Despite those claims, a clear rift between police and armed forces has formed in Port Said. On Monday, mourners held a funeral march for Sayed Ali al-Sayed through downtown. General Ahmed Wasfy, the highest ranking officer in the governorates of Sinai, Suez and Port Said, attended the march to pay his respects. He was joined by over 100 soldiers who provided protection for the mourners.

Police open fire from the roof of the police station. Photo by Mahmoud Elnaggar.

Later that afternoon, clashes began again, soldiers and protesters doing battle with the police. Local journalist Mohamed Assi reported soldiers firing explosives into the station, and the fighting has continued until now.

Port Said resident, Amr Sherif, described an attempt by police to sabotage the protest: “We caught a detective who was trying to get his gun ready to fire, to make it seem like protesters were trying to shoot the army.” The police officer is currently being held in an army vehicle. “We heard it was possible to exchange the officer for [arrested protesters],” he continued. Late Monday night, Morsi went on state television to beg the officers to use restraint. Shortly after, two protesters were pronounced dead at a hospital in Port Said. In total, seven Egyptians have died in this mess and it's not showing signs of stopping any time soon.


Follow Max on Twitter: @SaxMiegelbaum

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