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Egypt's Port Said simmers against ruling Islamists

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Port Said stand defaced and abandoned, in a city that was once a bastion of the Brotherhood but is now a thorn in the side of Egypt's ruling Islamists.

The Suez Canal city erupted in January after a court sentenced 21 residents to death for their involvement in a deadly football stadium riot and threatens to blow up again Saturday when the court sentences the remaining defendants.

The city had long complained of marginalisation by the central government, a misgiving shared by other regions in the country of 83 million people.

But Port Said's isolation increased after a February 2011 football stadium riot killed killed 74 people, mostly fans of the visiting Cairo Al-Ahly team.

Residents complain the defendants sentenced in January were scapegoats, accusing Islamist President Mohamed Morsi's government of exploiting them to quiet the well-organised and sometimes violent Cairo football fans who threatened violent protests if the defendants were exonerated.

After the initial rioting in January, in which dozens of people died, Port Said went into a general strike. Almost daily clashes, which killed one protester overnight on Thursday, are an ominous countdown to Saturday's verdicts.

The Brotherhood, which organised Morsi's election win in June, has been forced to abandon its headquarters after they came under attack, and take down its signs.

Instead, a banner in the city warns Morsi: "You're going back to jail again." Morsi had been briefly detained by president Hosni Mubarak, whom protesters overthrew in an early 2011 uprising.

In parliamentary elections later in 2011, the Brotherhood's newly formed Freedom and Justice Party won two out of six seats in the city's constituency.

But now the two former parliamentarians are nowhere to be seen, and protesters have attacked a clinic belonging to one of them.

Protesters have attacked Brotherhood offices around the country, after Morsi adopted -- now repealed -- extensive powers, which sparked mass rallies by the Islamists' opponents.

But it was in Port Said that the most relentless opposition has taken place.

"The Brotherhood has disappeared," said Mahmud Khalil, a 60-year-old resident.

"Will they only show up at election time?" asked another, al-Sayid al-Muati. "We're extremely angry at them because they left as at a very difficult time."

A Brotherhood spokesman in the city, Arafa Abu Sleima, said his movement was maintaining a presence in the city, though discreet.

"We remain in the city. We haven't escaped or withdrawn from the street. But we closed our main headquarters and act on an individual basis; not out of fear, but to avoid bloodshed," he told AFP.

Hostility towards the Islamists has even affected devout Muslims who grow their beards, said an engineer with a white beard who identified himself as Walid, complaining about harassment.

Residents who spoke to AFP said they would not vote for the Islamists again.

"We thought they would be different from Mubarak, but we realised they're worse," said Mustafa al-Shan, 60, who said he voted for the Brotherhood in the last parliamentary election.

"By escaping from our city during this tribulation they've forever dropped from our view."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130309/egypts-port-said-simmers-against-ruling-islamists