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Port city's strikes inspire Egypt's opposition

Thursday - 2/28/2013, 7:24pm  ET

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 file photo, Egyptians protesters parade with an effigy of a bearded man, mocking Egypt's Islamist rulers, during day six of the general strike, in Port Said, Egypt. For nearly two weeks, protesters and strikers have shut down much of Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Port Said, filling the streets with one angry rally after another. Opponents of Egypt’s Islamist president are looking to Port Said as a model for stepping up their campaign against him with a possible wave of civil disobedience in other parts of the country. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, File)

SARAH EL DEEB
Associated Press

PORT SAID, Egypt (AP) -- For nearly two weeks, protesters and strikers have shut down much of Egypt's Mediterranean city of Port Said, filling up the streets with one angry rally after another. At the unrest's height, they succeeded in closing off a multimillion-dollar port for days, forcing some ships to reroute, and in sealing off a major factory complex.

The strikes in this city of 750,000 at the tip of the strategic Suez Canal rattled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his government in a way that previous protests haven't, because they directly hit the economy. Opponents of Morsi, some of whom now openly call for his ouster, are looking to Port Said as a model for stepping up their campaign against him with a possible wave of civil disobedience in other parts of the country.

The plans for wider strikes are being pushed mainly by younger revolutionary groups. But in the process they appear to be pulling in opposition politicians, who had previously been reluctant -- and at times unable-- to step up street action against Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. The opposition is searching for a way to organize public anger against Morsi at a time when it has called for a boycott of parliamentary elections due to begin in April. The main opposition political coalition, the National Salvation Front, is considering some forms of civil disobedience, along with street campaigns, to back up its election boycott call.

Ziad el-Oleimi, a former lawmaker and prominent revolutionary since the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, said Port Said's strikes -- triggered a discussion among Morsi opponents on how to develop mechanisms of revolt. One idea is to encourage the public to stop paying electricity and other bills to the government as a sign of protest.

"We are facing a regime that is now immune to popular rallies. The revolution must develop its tactics. Strike and civil disobedience are among the measures that can harm the abilities of authority to rule," he said. "What is happening in Port Said moves us to a new area, and gives people an example of something they have not tried before."

Already, calls for strikes in several cities in the Nile Delta have led to clashes. In the Nile Delta city of Mansoura this week, protesters convinced staff at the main government office to go on strike, but pro-Brotherhood residents assaulted their sit-in, beating some protesters. Police then moved in, and clashes have continued between protesters and security forces for the past four days.

A civil disobedience campaign also has its limitations, illustrated by Port Said itself.

Morsi has portrayed those who forced the factory and port closures as "thugs" and "outlaws," seeking to discredit the protests. Shutting down factories also risks alienating workers reliant on their salaries. In some cases, protesters pressured workers into joining work stoppages.

And though Port Said strikes have been effective, they may be hard to reproduce elsewhere.

Most notably, Port Said is pervaded by an exceptional anger galvanizing the populace in a way not seen in other parts of the country.

Outrage has been boiling in the city since protests in late January against a court ruling that residents saw as unjust. During the protests, more than 40 residents were killed, mainly by security forces. Morsi praised the police, referred to the protesters as "thugs" and declared a state of emergency and curfew in Port Said's province and two neighboring provinces. While police withdrew from the city, the military moved in to protect key installations and buildings. The military did not crack down on the strikes.

The January protests were sparked when a court sentenced to death 21 people -- mostly Port Said residents -- for involvement in a deadly soccer riot in the city a year earlier. Most of the 74 people killed in the soccer riot were visiting fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly team. Many residents accuse authorities of bending to pressure from the Ultras, a powerful organization of Al-Ahly fans who have staged protests in Cairo and repeatedly battled security forces the past two years.

Residents' sense of being persecuted -- by the verdicts, the protester killings and Morsi's stances -- were key to bringing public support to the strikes, first launched by students 13 days ago.

"The verdict was politicized, and we were angered by it. So they end up killing over 40 people," said protester Ahmed Hafez. "The Ultras in Cairo pressured them, and they chose to lean on this small province."

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