Egyptians in Port City Reject President's Effort to Mollify Them

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CAIRO -- Thousands of demonstrators in the Egyptian city of Port Said temporarily shut down the road to a major port at the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal on Wednesday, brushing off moves by President Mohamed Morsi to placate the city with promises of economic development.

The shutdown, on the fourth day of a general strike across the city, was the closest that three weeks of unrest have come to disrupting the operations of the Suez Canal, a critical pillar of the sagging Egyptian economy. Crowds of protesters blocked the entrance to the city's eastern port, facing the Mediterranean, and prevented employees from entering. Then workers at the Suez Canal Containers Terminal walked out and joined the protest as well.

Mr. Morsi had called out the army to protect the canal when the protests began last month. State news media reported that operations at the facility had been "partially suspended" but then restored, without any effect on canal traffic. General Ahmed Sharaf, the chairman of the city's port, warned that shutting it down would send ships to the rival Israeli port city of Ashdod.

The protests in Port Said began Jan. 26 after a judge here in the capital sentenced 21 soccer fans to death for their role in a riot at a match between teams from Cairo and Port Said. Protesters tried to free the imprisoned fans, and more than 30 people died in the resulting clashes with the police, including at least two officers.

Mr. Morsi, Egypt's first elected president and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, appeared to side with the police, declaring a state of emergency that freed them from any legal constraints. The demonstrators are demanding legal action against the security forces for killing protesters as well as a reconsideration of the death sentences against the local fans.

Apparently in an attempt to appease the demonstrators, Mr. Morsi this week put forward legislation to reopen a lucrative "free trade zone" in the city and allocate nearly $60 million of canal revenue to the development of Port Said and two other canal towns, Suez and Ismailia.

But demonstrators all but ignored the promised benefits. Most businesses, government offices and schools remained closed for a fourth day, and marchers once again chanted for Port Said to declare its independence from Egypt. In Cairo, a lawmaker from Port Said began a hunger strike in Parliament to support the city's demands, state media reported. The lawmaker is also the mother of a popular player from Port Said on the national soccer team, Mohamed Zeidan.

Alaa Al-Bahei, a conservative Islamist and former lawmaker who once represented Port Said, called Mr. Morsi's development promises late and insufficient. He blamed the government in Cairo for the economic hardships inflicted by the street protests.

"Restoring the free zone to Port Said isn't a charity the president is giving the people -- it's their right," he said. "There must be a clear apology, and the name of the city must be cleared."

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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