“Military rule was bad, but they would be better,” Ahmed Abdel Fattah, 50, said. “Where is the state? Where is the Interior Ministry, the government? Where are the decisions to protect the interests of the people?” He added, “The military should take over until the police are ready.”

Although such calls are hardly universal and there is no threat of an imminent coup, the growing murmurs that military intervention may be the only solution to the collapse of public security can be heard across the country, especially in circles opposed to the Islamists who have dominated post-Mubarak elections. The talk reflects the dire state of the security crisis, which threatens not only Egypt’s transition to democracy but also its hopes to stave off economic collapse. And here in Port Said, a focal point of the widening crisis since the police lost control more than a month ago, a form of local military takeover has already taken place.

As the city braced for a court ruling on Saturday about responsibility for a deadly riot last year at a match between Port Said and Cairo, security forces fled the city and turned over their burned-out headquarters — as well as sole responsibility for public safety — to the military. The few local police stations where staff was still present “suspended” their work, officers said, in what appeared to be part of a widening strike by police and security forces across the country.

The crisis in Port Said began in late January with a verdict similar to the one issued Saturday: a court sentenced 21 local soccer fans to death for their role in a riot at match against a team for Cairo.

That decision set off a month of lethal clashes with security forces that killed at least four police officers and more than 40 civilians. It also prompted the president to deploy the military to protect Port Said’s Suez Canal port and other vital facilities.

On Saturday the court reaffirmed the death sentences and added a verdict that only increased the anger in the streets. It convicted two senior security officials, sentencing both to 15 years in jail for negligence, but it acquitted seven police officers and two officials of the Port Said soccer club.

However, with the police all but gone, crowds that had vowed revenge were unsure where to vent their rage. Along with wailing relatives of those sentenced to die, hundreds of Port Said residents gathered in the square opposite the empty security headquarters, which was badly damaged by flames and pockmarked with broken windows from a weeklong siege by protesters. “The whole city comes to the streets!” one man shouted.

But the crowd was confused. “We don’t know what to do!” one man shouted. “We want a police officer to kill, a soldier to rip apart.”

Another screamed in frustration: “They took the police outside the city so we will bang our heads against the wall!”

When some in the crowd moved toward soldiers, a row of civilians linked hands and held back the mob. “The army and the people are one hand,” they chanted, reprising the mantra of the early days after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when protesters applauded the military for taking over to bring him down.

Handmade banners around the city echoed the sentiments. “Port Said is in the protection of the military,” read one notice signed by “the people of Port Said.”

And the military hung banners that appeared to take the side of the residents against the police. “The Armed Forces share the people’s grief for the martyrs of Port Said,” one military sign declared.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Port Said, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo. Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Port Said.

As Crisis Deepens in Egypt After Ruling on Riot, Calls for a Military Coup – New York Times
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