Egypt soccer riot: Have police lost control?

Kristen Chick, Correspondent


Egypt declared a three-day mourning period and its parliament held an emergency session after clashes between fans of rival soccer teams killed at least 79 people Wednesday night.

The violence was the deadliest incident since the uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, and heightened criticism of the poor performance of the police force, which has often appeared either unable or unwilling to perform its duties in securing Egyptians' safety since the 30-year leader was forced out.

Many Egyptians, while fiercely angry at police, are also holding the military council ultimately responsible for the failure of police and the lack of security in the country.

“Those in charge are responsible for this,” says soccer fan Tamer as he helped block traffic into Tahrir Square this morning in protest.

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Even though Tamer is a supporter of the Zamalek club, an archrival of the Ahly club whose fans were attacked yesterday, he came out in a show of solidarity against the security forces. “The police stood by and did nothing as people were killed," he says. "And the military hasn’t provided a safe and secure environment. This is a national tragedy and those in charge bear the blame.”

Policeman: No one respects us anymore

The details of what happened Wednesday night after a match in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said are unclear. Hard-core fans, known as "ultras," from both Al Masry, the local club, and Al Ahly, a Cairo-based club that is the most popular in Egypt, attended the match, which ended in an unusual victory for Al Masry. Videos show that after a game, fans of Al Masry rushed onto the field, apparently attacking both the Ahly players and fans. Most of the police present appeared to stand aside as the crowd swarmed the pitch.

Witnesses reported that some fans suffocated to death in a panicked rush to escape, while others were stabbed or otherwise wounded in clashes with Al Masry fans. The exits were closed, leaving Ahly fans trapped in exit passageways where they had tried to escape.

Mohamed Abu Trika, a popular player for Al Ahly, said on the team’s television station that police had not protected people. “People are dying here, and no one is doing anything,” he said. “It’s like war.”

But a police conscript guarding an embassy in Cairo today, who gave his name as Adel, says he sympathized with his colleagues at the match. The police could not control a violent stampede, he says – especially these days, after losing the respect and fear of Egyptians in the uprising.

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“No one respects us anymore," he says. "They say bad words to us and spit on us, and consider us their enemies. They fight us in the streets.”

The police force withdrew from Cairo’s streets after being overwhelmed by the uprising on Jan. 28, 2011, and has never returned in full force. Rights groups, activists, and some politicians have pressed for security-sector reform that would end a culture of abuse and corruption in the police force and help it regain the trust of the people, but the military junta has not taken any measures.

A boost for military rulers?

Many Egyptians today struggled to understand just what had happened at the soccer match. Strong rivalries between the ultras are a part of the sports world in Egypt, and they occasionally lead to fights. But yesterday’s events are unprecedented for Egypt, marking the largest death toll ever in sports-related violence  in the country.

The ultras participated in the uprisings that toppled Mubarak, and more recently played a key role in the Sept. 9 raid on the Israeli embassy and in street fighting against police and military forces in November and December, in which dozens of civilians were killed. The ultras have a reputation for fighting without fear at the front lines of urban street warfare, using fireworks as weapons and using vulgar chants against the security forces.

Some speculate that the police allowed the Masry fans to attack as a way to mete out revenge on the Ahly fans who fought police in the capital. Others say the military allowed the attack to happen in order to scare the country into extending military rule. “Who benefits from this? The military council,” reasons Gamal Shuab, a student who had helped stop traffic in Tahrir. “People will be scared and ask them to stay.”

“They get their legitimacy from chaos. They will do anything not to leave, and they are stirring up trouble to create a pretext for staying,” says passerby Tarek Abdel Moneim, who even suggests that security forces may have been directly involved in the violence. “The ones who do this aren’t thugs, they’re from state security.”

Yet others blame the Masry fans. “They are thugs. There’s been hatred between the two teams for a long time,” says Tarek Amr, a downtown merchant. “They knew that, and they shouldn’t have held the game when Egypt is so unstable. There weren’t enough police there to protect people, but there aren’t enough police anywhere in Egypt right now.”

'Where has Egypt gone?'

Confronting its first crisis, Egypt’s newly elected parliament held an emergency session – the first in 40 years, according to the speaker. Some members called for the Interior minister and public prosecutor of the military-appointed government to be removed and tried. Others called for the resignation of the military-appointed prime minister, or early presidential elections to end military rule.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which holds the most seats, released a statement calling the violence “an integral part of a deliberate scheme to incite strife,” aimed at “derailing the process of peaceful democratic transition of power.”

Meanwhile, Al Ahly ultras planned a march from their club to either the Ministry of Interior or the parliament building, and the US embassy warned its citizens to avoid the area.

“Can you tell me where Egypt has gone?” asks Ameer Ahmed, looking stricken as he watches a fight breaking out in Tahrir Square over the cause of the tragedy. “I’m watching what’s happening, and I don’t understand it anymore,” he says. “We need a president. We need someone to lead this country.”

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