PORT SAID, Egypt // Egypt sacked its riot police chief on the eve of a court verdict on a deadly football riot, with unrest pushing Egypt's already precarious government to the brink.
Mohammed Ibrahim, the Egyptian interior minister, appointed a new commander for the Central Security Forces (CSF) after "widespread protests in several CSF departments over the past 48 hours demanding that policemen be removed from political conflicts", the official Mena news agency reported.
The dismissal came as the interior ministry said it was withdrawing police from their headquarters in Port Said "to calm tensions" and handed the military responsibility for the building's protection.
A protester was shot dead yesterday in clashes in Port Said, the Suez Canal city where military has been deployed since protests erupted there in late January after a court sentenced 21 defendants to death in the case.
Today the court, again sitting for security reasons in the capital, is to judge the remaining 52 defendants for their involvement in a February 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 city of Ismailia where riot police have said they will refuse to obey orders to deploy in neighbouring Port Said.
The striking policemen have claimed they are not equipped to deal with violent protesters, and officers complained they were 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 set on fire in previous incidents, and clashed with officers. One protester was shot dead overnight and 73 people were wounded, medics said.
President Mohammed Morsi had deployed the military to bolster police in the city after the court sentenced 21 Port Said residents to death for their roles in the football riot.
The remaining 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 a repeat of violence there in January in which dozens of people were killed 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 now 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 said.
Mr Morsi'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.
"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 riot.