By Leslie Garvey
In early March, a resurgence in football riots erupted across Egypt, most severely in Cairo and Port Said. Thousands of football fans took to the streets, clashing with local police forces and, in Cairo, setting the Egyptian Football Federation headquarters and the Police Club on fire.
The protests came in response to a ruling by a Port Said court—at a hearing held in Cairo, for security concerns—upholding sentences handed down to police forces and football fans involved in the deadly February 2012 Port Said stadium riots, where at least 79 people were killed when fans from the Port Said al-Masry club took to the pitch and began attacking Cairo al-Ahly fans and players following a match between the two teams.
Twenty-one defendants—all supporters of the al-Masry team—were given death sentences by hanging, and 24 others, including two police officers, were sentenced to life in prison. A remaining 28 were acquitted, seven of which were police officers, accounting for much of the outrage surrounding the verdict.
Die-hard fans of al-Masry decried the court ruling as being overly sympathetic to members of al-Ahly, and many believe that the convicted rioters received harsher sentences because they were from Port Said, which has a contentious history with police.
A Port Said police officer interviewed by al-Ahram even admitted problems with the investigation. “We didn’t know who to arrest,” he said, “so we detained anyone at the stadium who had a criminal record and people we thought might be behind it.” He conceded that “there could be people on trial who are innocent.”
Supporters of al-Ahly, on the other hand, had threatened long before the verdict that they would retaliate if any of the police officers were exonerated. After taking to the streets of Cairo when the final ruling was announced, the Ultras Ahlawy stated on their Facebook page: “What happened today in Cairo is only the beginning of our rage. Even more of it will surface if all officials involved in the massacre are not put on trial. We will not be placated by the sentencing of just two police ‘dogs.’”
Riots over the highly publicized trial have been ongoing since the initial sentencing in January, contributing to a growing number of clashes against police forces and increased anti-police sentiment amongst the Egyptian population.
It is widely believed, in Port Said especially, that police forces “provoked” or “orchestrated” the stadium massacre. According to Timur Moon of the International Business Times, police allegedly “stepped back from the trouble,” locked the gates when the fans invaded the pitch, and shut off the stadium’s electricity. In the darkness, panicked fans “were stabbed to death and crushed against locked doors.”
The Port Said stadium saga is not merely the stuff of disgruntled football fans. President Mohamed Morsi’s ready wielding of security forces against protestors and peaceful civilians has struck a political chord with Egyptians—and Ultras most of all.
Football fan clubs have played an unexpectedly powerful political role in Egypt’s revolutionary path. The “Ultras”—organized, militant football fans modeled after Italy’s own notoriously violent fan clubs—have been widely recognized for their members’ vital role in the protests that toppled the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
While Ultra clubs have sought to officially distance themselves from politics, they condone political participation for their members outside the organization: for instance, the Ultras al-Ahlawy—the largest Ultra group supporting Egypt’s popular al-Ahly team—stated on its Facebook page in January 2011 that the group would remain non-political in the upheaval, but emphasized that its members were “free in their political choices.”
Indeed, Ultras of all fan clubs are well known for their participation in the 2011 Tahrir Square protests, where their long history of clashing with police at football matches helped them lead other civilians fighting against the regime’s crackdown. A leader of the Ultras Zamalek, a longtime rival of the al-Ahly team, related in an interview with James Montague of CNN, “We are fighting [the police] in every match. We know them. … We know when [the police] run, when we should make them run. We were teaching [the protesters] how to throw bricks.”
In the same interview, a member of al-Ahlawy reiterated the role Ultras played in teaching civil disobedience. “Our role was to make people dream, letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back. … During the revolution, there was the Muslim Brotherhood, the activists, and the ultras. That’s it.”
The Port Said trial seems to have summoned the same players to the board, recalling the early days of Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests: in Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Mahala, and Assuit, riots have raged through the streets against the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, with activists carrying signs reading “We will win the 25 January Revolution,” “We will get back our revolution from the thieves and impostors,” and “Long live Egyptians and long live the army.”
Police have even gone on strike in more than a third of Egyptian provinces, protesting the force they have been ordered to use against activists. About 70 people have already been killed in clashes with the police, many of whom have called “to be left out of politics and to return to fighting crime” instead of suppressing civilians.
The ‘Lesser’ of Two Evils
A recent report, parts of which were obtained by the Associated Press, has only fueled the growing resentment of police forces. Released by a judicial fact-finding committee appointed by President Morsi, the report concluded that of the deaths of the nearly 900 protestors it investigated from the revolution, the police “were behind nearly all the killings” and “used snipers on rooftops overlooking Tahrir Square to shoot into the huge crowds.”
In Port Said, not much has changed from Mubarak to Morsi: Amnesty International reports that, in the protests following the Port Said stadium massacre where security forces killed at least 38 protestors, police were “shooting from the rooftops of buildings” and firing indiscriminately at crowds, including peaceful civilians.
Some Egyptians are even advocating for an army takeover, particularly in Port Said. A sign at the entrance of the city’s port reads, “We welcome the military,” and in a public park civilians have set up a makeshift security post that they call “The People’s Police Station.”
The Daily News Egypt has reported that “thousands” of Egyptians have gone to Defense Minister General Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi and asked him “to sign a power of attorney calling for the army to take over state affairs and topple Morsi’s regime.”
Al-Sisi has publicly expressed sympathy to the growing opposition movement in the country, having resolved not to harm peaceful protestors and defied some of Morsi’s commands to crack down, refusing to enforce curfews in some cities. Al-Sisi has also indicated—quite pointedly and much to Morsi’s ire—the military’s readiness to step in if the country’s political crisis is not soon resolved.
Given the failure of President Morsi to respect the human rights and political voices of the Egyptian people, it is understandable that residents in suppressed areas such as Port Said feel as if there is no other option than turning to the army. Unless the country’s civilian leaders can prove themselves less repressive than their military predecessors, Egypt seems doomed to join Tunisia in revisiting its recent violent history all over again.
Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.