A protester was shot dead in clashes in Port Said yesterday, ahead of today's court verdict on a deadly soccer riot, with unrest pushing Egypt's already precarious government to the brink.
The interior ministry said it was withdrawing police from their headquarters in the city "to calm tensions" and handing responsibility for the building's protection over to the military.
The military has been deployed in the restive Suez Canal city since protests erupted there in late January after a court sentenced 21 defendants to death in the case.
The court, sitting in the capital for security reasons, is due today to judge the remaining 52 defendants for their involvement in the 2011 stadium riot that left 74 people dead, mostly fans of the visiting Cairo side, Al-Ahly.
Under Egypt's justice system, if convicted, defendants receive their sentence immediately.
The latest verdict will coincide with unprecedented nationwide protests by police themselves, including in the canal city of Ismailiya where riot police have said they would 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 police headquarters in Port Said, which had already been torched in previous incidents, and clashed with officers. One protester was shot dead and 73 people were wounded. President Mohammed Mursi 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 defendants to be judged today include nine policemen and three officials of the Port Said football club, Al-Masry.
The city is now bracing for more violence, after the initial verdict in January sparked rioting that killed dozens.
"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."
Mursi's beleaguered government will have to contend with protests in Cairo should the court exonerate the remaining defendants - Al-Ahly fans have threatened to stage violent protests if the court issues lenient verdicts.