CAIRO -- Thousands of demonstrators shut down the administrative buildings of the Suez Canal terminal in the city of Port Said on Sunday, as part of a general strike protesting the death sentences handed down three weeks ago to 21 local soccer fans for their roles in a deadly riot last year.
The protests marked the closest that the chaos in Egypt over the last two years has come to threatening the operations of the Suez Canal, an artery of shipping critical to both international commerce and the battered Egyptian economy.
The administrative facilities were emptied as the protesters approached, residents said, but a military guard protected the port from disruption. President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, had deployed the military to protect the city when the protests there started three weeks ago.
The success of the strike, as life had begun to return to the streets, was a vivid reminder that the government in Cairo has not yet restored full control over Port Said, a major city at the Mediterranean head of the Suez Canal with a population of about 600,000. The government essentially backed down from its attempt to impose a curfew, and nothing has diminished the underlying anger behind the riots, first over the initial death sentences and then over the deaths of dozens of protesters in clashes with the police.
The possibility of a threat to the flow of traffic through the canal remains remote, but the Sunday protest raised the specter of such disruption at a critical time. Political turbulence has cut deeply into tourism and economic growth in the two years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. And now the political instability keeps delaying a proposed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, whose seal of approval is essential to obtaining the further billions in loans needed to close the country's deficit.
The Egyptian pound is falling sharply against the dollar. Unemployment is high, and prices are rising. The Suez Canal is one of Egypt's main sources of hard currency, along with tourism, foreign aid and remittances from Egyptians abroad.
The protest was also a rare example of major civil disobedience in Egypt since the revolution that overthrew Mr. Mubarak in early 2011. It was the first day of the work week here, and Egyptian state media and residents of Port Said said that demonstrators had gathered outside the provincial headquarters at 7 a.m., blocking access to the building.
The protesters urged employees of the provincial government, the courthouse, the telephone and natural gas utilities, customs offices and other government institutions to quit work and join their strike. Many did, the Web site of the state newspaper Al Ahram reported. Protesters blocked railways. Photographs that circulated on the Internet showed women sitting on desks they had dragged outside in a shutdown of a school, although residents said some schools and courts remained opened.
Al Ahram reported that the demonstrators were demanding legal action against police officers who had killed protesters during last month's clashes. They also sought a review by a "neutral court" of the death sentences against the local soccer fans delivered in Cairo. The soccer brawl in the case took place at a match between bitter rivals, El Masry of Port Said and Al Ahly of Cairo, both of which have large followings of violent hard-core fans. Many residents of Port Said say they believe the sentencing judge succumbed to pressure from violent Cairo soccer fans who demanded retribution.
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.