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Egypt soccer riot: Whatever actually happened, public fury is what counts (+video)

The Egypt soccer riot yesterday took 73 lives, and now furious protesters are flooding the streets of Cairo looking for someone to blame.

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But a year on, a coterie of generals hand-picked by Mubarak remain in charge. Police brutality, which provided the initial spark for the revolution, when the arrest, torture, and murder of Khaled Said by police in Alexandria started the protest movement rolling, remains rampant. Though a new parliament has been elected in the freest vote in Egyptian memory, power remains in the hands of the military, and the will, desire, and ability of the Islamists who now dominate the body to rein in the security services remain unclear.

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Could distrust spread to parliament?

It's clear that large numbers of Egyptians have no faith or trust in the military or the police, and as events unfold in the coming days, that distrust could spread to the nascent parliament. When protesters marched peacefully on parliament a few days ago, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party is the dominant force in the legislature, dispatched its own cadres to confront them, and clashes ensued. The Brotherhood's first impulse was not only an authoritarian one, but one that relied on its own informal street power rather than on national institutions.

Contempt could easily spread to the new parliament if it isn't seen to fully and transparently investigate the events in Port Said. Whatever happens in the medium term, the symbolism of protesters – many regular activists have joined the supporters of Ahly and other football clubs protesting in Cairo – clashing with the security forces in Tahrir exactly as they did a year ago, is glaring. Egypt remains volatile, many popular demands remain unmet, and few steps have been taken to create public faith in discredited institutions from the police to the state-controlled media in the intervening months.

What happened yesterday? The evidence now is pointing to the same cocktail of calculation, callousness, and incompetence that usually accompanies soccer disasters. The calculation, from the hard core fans of the home team seeking to inflict a beating on the less numerous traveling fans. The callousness, from stadium management that locked a main gate and turned an escape tunnel into a death trap where many were trampled in a panic, among them a 14-year-old boy. The incompetence, from the riot police that had neither the training, the leadership, nor the will to take action.

That locked gate, probably due to a desire to keep fans from entering without paying, was the single biggest contributor to the death toll. After the soccer tragedies in Europe in the '70s and '80s, culminating in the Hillsborough disaster in which 97 Liverpool fans died in a crush in 1989, best practices for stadium and crowd management were updated and revised. The main takeaway? Penning people up or locking them in leads to death. The answer was to remove fencing, to widen pedestrian clog points – and to keep the gates open in case something bad happened.

Those are the easy fixes. The tough fix is the police force itself – a mix of untrained conscripts and career officers, used to extracting confessions by torture and cash from average folks. That battle will be one of years. We'll find out soon if the new members of parliament have the ability and the desire to wage it.


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