CAIRO — Strikes by Egyptian security forces spread swiftly around the country Friday, as police walked off the job or took to the streets, angry at being blamed for crackdowns on protests against the Islamist president and accusing his Muslim Brotherhood of trying to control them.
The wave of police discontent adds a new layer to Egypt’s turmoil and political breakdown. In a sign of the disarray, a powerful hard-line Islamist group said its members would now take over policing a southern province because most security forces in the province were on strike.
The top security official in Assiut province, Gen. Aboul-Kassem Deif, said the announcement by Gamaa Islamiya — a group that in the 1990s waged an armed Islamic militant uprising but in the past two years entered politics — was illegal. But he seemed to acknowledge he could not stop it.
“I don’t know what to do,” he told The Associated Press.
Strikes by policemen and riot police were reported in at least 10 of Egypt’s 29 provinces, including at several stations in the capital, Cairo.
In Cairo, police demonstrated in front of the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the security forces, and demanded the resignation of the minister, their boss.
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, police closed their stations and plastered posters on the door reading, “We don’t want politics” and — in an attempt to show unity with the public — “Police and the people are one hand.”
The police discontent comes after relentless protests and unrest around the country since late January — which in turn followed an earlier wave of protests in November and December. In past weeks, protesters have taken to the streets largely in anger against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which the opposition accuses of trying to dominate power in the country. But other factors have fueled unrest, including a declining economy and fuel shortages.
Near daily, the demonstrations have turned into clashes with police in multiple cities, resulting in the killing of around 70 protesters. Each death has increased public anger against the security forces, fueled further by reports of torture of some activists by security agents. The force is already widely hated because of its legacy of abuses and brutality under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Now that has sparked a backlash by many of the lower-ranking members of the security forces. Protesting police accuse Morsi of using them to crack down on his opponents and demand the resignation of the current, Morsi-appointed interior minister, who they accuse of engineering efforts to bring Islamist sympathizers into the ministry.
Police officers in the southern city of Sohag marched in front of one station, holding signs reading, “No to the Brotherhoodization of the ministry.”
Police in charge of protecting the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which makes up the backbone of Morsi’s rule, have gone on strike, as have others tasked with escorting Morsi’s motorcades.
Some members of the Central Security forces — the riot police force that is at the forefront of cracking down on protesters — have come to near munity.
On Thursday, protesting riot police trapped the Central Security’s top commander for several hours inside their camp at the city of Port Said, refusing to deploy in the city against protesters.
On Friday, the Interior Ministry announced that the commander, Gen. Maged Nouh, had been removed from his post and replaced by his deputy, Ashraf Abdullah.
Port Said, located at the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal, has been the center of the heaviest violence during the unrest. A police crackdown on protests there in late January left 40 dead. Protesters have been clashing with police there the past week in fighting that has killed at least eight people, including three policemen.
On Friday, the military took over security in the city as police withdrew from the street and riot police stayed in their barracks. The handover was an attempt to bring calm since protesters largely trust the army more than police.
But many fear a new wave of violence on Saturday when a court issues new verdicts and sentences in a contentious trial over a deadly soccer riot in Port Said in February 2012. A first set of verdicts on Jan. 28 — in which 21 Port Said residents were sentenced to death over the riot — sparked the city’s initial uprising because its population sees the trial as unjust and politicized.
On Saturday, the court is scheduled to issue verdicts on around 50 more defendants, mostly Port Said residents but also including nine police officers. If the police personnel are convicted or handed heavy sentences, it will likely further fuel resentment among the security forces.
Hundreds marched through Port Said on Friday in a funeral procession for one of two protesters shot to death in fighting with police the night before, one of whom had been shot in the head. In Cairo on Friday, protesters and police fought on a main thoroughfare along the Nile River for the fifth straight day.
The mainly liberal and secular opposition says the turmoil shows that Morsi and his Islamist allies are not qualified to rule. They have accused Morsi and his Brotherhood of imposing their control and failing to seek consensus with other groups.
Morsi’s supporters, in turn, say the opposition is trying to use street violence to overturn their election victories. In June, Morsi became the country’s first freely elected president, and Islamists dominate parliament after elections last year.
The announcement by the Gamaa Islamiya in the southern province of Assiut raised the possibility of Islamist groups moving in to fill the void left by striking police.
The group declared its offices the “security headquarters” for the province and said it was organizing volunteer members to carry out police duties like patrols. Islamists in nearby provinces have spoken of doing the same.
The Gamaa was one of two main militant groups that waged a bloody campaign of violence in southern Egypt aiming to overthrow the state in the 1990s. It since forswore violence and entered politics after Mubarak’s fall in 2011, but it maintains a hard-line Islamist ideology.
The Assiut security chief, Deif, accused the Gamaa of exploiting the situation to expand its influence before parliamentary elections expected in coming months.
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