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02.03.12

New Riots Rock Egypt Amid Finger-Pointing Over Soccer Deaths

Violence is rocking Cairo amid claims the new government allowed Wednesday’s soccer deaths to happen. Who are the diehard fans who say they’re defending the revolution?

In the western stand of Port Said’s soccer stadium, among the thousands of ticket stubs and the dirt-caked husks of discarded sunflower seeds—the football hooligan’s snack of choice—dozens of fliers lay on the concrete floor featuring the face of Mahmoud Zidan, a local parliamentary candidate.

First in his 15-point manifesto was a pledge to increase the number of visitors to Port Said, the Suez Canal’s gateway city, which lies 220 kilometers east of Cairo.

But given the terrible events that unfolded here Wednesday evening, Zidan could well have his work cut out in attracting any tourists.

As Egyptians come to terms with the deadliest soccer disaster in their country’s history, the very political project that Zidan is fighting for appears to be on the rocks.

Today, four protesters and one policeman were confirmed dead as another round of antigovernment rioting—the third in as many months—rocked central Cairo and the eastern city of Suez.

The civilians were all killed by police gunfire. One of those who fell suffered terrible injuries after being struck at close range by birdshot from a riot-squad shotgun.

The violence was a response to Wednesday’s football catastrophe, in which 74 people were killed and countless more injured when hooligans sitting in the home team’s stand staged a pitch invasion and attacked visiting supporters from Cairo.

Yesterday, M.P.s in Egypt’s new Parliament queued up to blame the ruling Military Council during a swiftly convened emergency session.

As fresh claims emerged about how hundreds of thugs were mysteriously allowed through the gates to watch the Port Said match—a topflight clash that ended in a surprise 3–1 victory for the home side—several M.P.s went so far as to claim the government had intentionally allowed the tragedy to happen.

A coalition of leading liberal parties has now demanded that the newly elected People’s Assembly issue a vote of no confidence in the military-appointed cabinet, heaping further pressure on Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, the Mubarak-era premier who took office in December.

“Yesterday wasn’t a football match,” said Mohammad Sayed, a 37-year-old laborer who watched the chaos unfold. “It was a war.”

“This is a complete crime,” said Abbas Mekhimar, head of the Parliament’s defense committee. “This is part of the scenario of fueling chaos against Egypt.”

This evening, as thousands of protesters battled riot police near the Interior Ministry in downtown Cairo, Mekhimar’s “scenario” appeared to be playing out.

Among the ranks of protesters are hundreds of “ultras,” the diehard soccer fans who bore the brunt of Wednesday night’s violence when their members were crushed to death in a stampede.

The violence flared after the final whistle when, in spite of their home team winning a rare victory, supporters of the local Port Said club charged en masse toward the opposing stands, full of visiting Cairo fans.

In the melee that followed, knife- and stick-wielding thugs chased players into their dressing rooms while others engaged in fistfights on the turf.

Panicking, the thousands of Cairo supporters tried to flee. Their only exit route was a sloping, stepped corridor barely big enough for two cars.

However, the route was blocked by two heavy, 12-foot-high steel gates. Eventually, under immense pressure, they gave way, ripping a set of six-inch hinges with them.

An employee at the stadium showed The Daily Beast the scene where scores of terrified fans lost their lives.

Filthy pools of dried blood were splattered over the corridor steps, while scattered over the floor were scores of shoes—barely a full pair among them—that had been ripped off the fleeing fans’ feet as they scrambled in the crush.

Most of the dead were killed by asphyxiation. Others were stabbed by local supporters or suffered brain hemorrhages, according to a Health Ministry official.

“Yesterday wasn’t a football match,” said Mohammad Sayed, a 37-year-old laborer who watched the chaos unfold. “It was a war.”

If that was the case, then tonight the ultras of Cairo were opening a second front.

The diehards of Al-Ahly, the team that lost on Wednesday night, even went so far as to issue a statement promising as much. The declaration said supporters would start a “new war in defense of the revolution.”

And it is no empty threat. The politicization of the ultras has been one of the most intriguing leitmotifs of Egypt’s revolution. The fans of Cairo’s two main clubs, Zamalek and Al-Ahly, have spearheaded many of the demonstrations against the ruling Military Council since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak.

So much so that in today’s statement the ultras accused the authorities of deliberately allowing Wednesday’s violence as a mark of revenge for their attacks on riot police.

The claim is unsubstantiated, yet today there was further speculation in the Egyptian press suggesting that “provocateurs” had been deployed in Port Said’s stadium by Mubarak-era officials. Either the government and authorities were woefully negligent, say the critics, or they deliberately orchestrated the violence to further undermine Egypt’s uprising.

Tonight, just weeks after the unprecedented chain of riots that turned Cairo into a war zone before Christmas, the Egyptian capital was burning once more.

Riot police responded to stone-throwing protesters with heavy volleys of tear gas, while other activists torched tires and sang chants calling for the execution of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the country’s de facto ruler.

Prime Minister Ganzouri told M.P.s yesterday that the Egyptian Soccer Federation’s board had been dismissed and the governor of Port Said province had resigned. But for protesters who have been demanding an end to military rule for months, it may not be enough.