PORT SAID, Egypt: A protester was shot dead in clashes in Port Said early on Friday on the eve of a court verdict on a deadly football riot, with unrest pushing Egypt's already precarious government to the brink.
The government has largely lost its hold on security in the restive Suez Canal city since protests erupted there in late January after a court sentenced 21 defendants to death in the case.
On Saturday the court, again sitting for security reasons in the capital, is due to judge the remaining 52 defendants for their involvement in a 2011 stadium riot that killed 74 people, mostly fans of visiting Cairo side Al-Ahly.
If convicted, defendants are sentenced simultaneously under Egypt's justice system.
The latest verdict will coincide with unprecedented protests nationwide by police themselves, including in the canal city of Ismailiya where riot police have said they will refuse to obey orders to deploy in neighbouring Port Said.
The striking policemen say they are not equipped to deal with violent protesters, and complain they are being made to suffer the consequences of government mistakes.
On Thursday, protesters again marched on the police headquarters in Port Said, which had already been torched in previous incidents, and clashed with officers. One protester was shot dead overnight and 73 people were wounded, medics said.
President Mohamed Morsi had deployed the military to bolster police in the city after the court sentenced 21 Port Said residents to death for their role in the 2011 riot.
The remaining defendants to be judged on Saturday include nine policemen and three officials of the Port Said football club, Al-Masry.
The city is now bracing for a repeat of violence in January that killed dozens of people in Port Said after the initial verdict.
“What happens on Saturday depends on the verdict,” said al-Badry al-Farghali, a former parliamentarian from Port Said. “I believe it's best to delay the verdict, or Egypt will go up in flames, here or elsewhere.”
Police have largely withdrawn from the city, with soldiers taking over much of their duties.
“I'm terrified of what could happen on Saturday,” one soldier guarding the police headquarters told AFP.
Morsi's beleaguered government will have to contend with protests in Cairo should the verdict exonerate the remaining defendants – Al-Ahly fans have threatened to stage violent protests if the court issues lenient verdicts.
“If there is no justice on March 9, you will wish you could find a way to escape,” the group warned police in a message posted on its Facebook page.
Diehard Al-Ahly fans, known as Ultras, held a series of protests over the past week and also attacked the residence of a former interior minister who headed the police at the time of the February 2011 stadium riot.
The official MENA news agency reported on Friday that the interior ministry planned to deploy 2,000 policemen outside Cairo's police academy, where a panel of judges will pass sentence in a makeshift courtroom.
More unrest will further imperil the government's plans to push ahead with economic reforms needed to secure a $4.8-billion International Monetary Fund loan.
Sporadic unrest since Morsi's election last June has foiled his pledges to revive Egypt's economy, which has nosedived since the early 2011 uprising that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak.