Egypt soccer deaths: the politics behind a sports tragedy

The parties involved in the tragic deaths of 22 soccer fans in Egypt Sunday are political actors as well, from the fan group that played a role in the 2011 uprising to the police eager to show they are back in control.

Roger Anis, El Shorouk Newspaper/AP
Egyptian students, pray for people who were killed on Sunday from a riot outside the Air Defense Stadium, at Cairo University in Egypt, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. Egypt's Cabinet has indefinitely suspended the national soccer league after more than 20 fans were killed in a stampede and clashes with police outside the Cairo stadium.

The deaths of 22 soccer fans in Egypt cannot be seen simply as a sports tragedy.

Like almost everything since the 2011 uprising that toppled authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, the country's struggles and hopes – as well as the government's pursuit for power and respect – are very much at the heart of what happened Sunday night outside the military's Air Defense stadium in an eastern Cairo suburb.

The main participants in the latest tragedy are Egypt's highly militarized police and the powerful, pro-government media that are slowly moving to the center of life in this country of 90 million people.

Some answers to key questions on what the latest soccer riot tells us about sports and politics in Egypt:

Q: What happened?

A: Police fired tear gas into a narrow corridor packed with hundreds of fans leading into the stadium where Cairo club Zamalek was playing ENNPI in a key league match. Witnesses also said birdshot was fired. That set off a stampede, and authorities said all 22 victims died of suffocation from tear gas as well as being trampled. The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said the fans had no tickets and were trying to force their way inside. But witnesses and fans say that many of them actually had tickets.

Q: Why did the police deal with them so harshly?

A: Since the ouster 19 months ago of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, police been going to great lengths to show that they are back in charge after the force was humiliated and melted away after fierce battles with demonstrators during the 2011 uprising. They have consistently been dealing harshly with any protests, no matter how small or innocuous, or public signs of dissent against President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the general-turned-politician. The police also have a festering vendetta with hard-core supporters of Zamalek and those of another Cairo team, Al-Ahly. Known as the Ultras, the fans have made a habit of taunting police during matches with disparaging chants. Significantly, large numbers of Ultras took part in the 2011 uprising and provided the muscle in clashes between pro-democracy activists on one side and the police and army on the other.

Q: How did Egyptians react to the deaths?

A: They were horrified, particularly since the victims are in their late teens or early 20s. Moreover, Egypt experienced one of the world's deadliest soccer tragedies – the death of 74 Al-Ahly fans in the Suez Canal city of Port Said – in 2012. Sunday's deaths also highlight a country fatigued by an administration too keen to assert its authority, regardless of the cost, cracking down on dissent, even in sports, while grappling with an ailing economy and a fledgling Islamist insurgency. The pro-Sisi media was quick to blame the violence on the fans, not the police. The host of a radio show asked listeners to spare a thought for the police trucks torched by the fans. Another one, on TV, warned against labeling the dead fans "martyrs." There also has been much criticism of allowing fans to attend soccer matches at a time when Egypt remains roiled in turmoil. That the game went on despite the tragedy that unfolded just outside the gates served as a potent example of an administration zealously asserting its authority. Mr. Sisi's office issued a statement mourning the deaths, but no official mourning period was announced and the president went ahead with his plans to attend the opera with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Q: Does Egypt have a history of politics or religion getting mixed up in sports?

A: Yes. For decades, Egypt has struggled to contain Islamists seeking to topple secular regimes, with politics and sports often fused with displays of piety. In the 1990s, basketball star Medhat Wardah, who played for the Alexandria club al-Ittihad, wore shorts below the knees to conform to Islamic rules on modesty and celebrated wins by holding high a copy of the Quran. At the same time, players on Egypt's seven-time African champion national soccer team knelt in unison and offer a prayer of thanks every time they scored a goal. In other team sports such as handball and volleyball, players frequently prayed together before a game. More recently, athletes who publicly showed allegiance to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood by making a four-finger hand gesture were suspended or made available for sale to other clubs. Retired Al-Ahly midfielder Mohammed Abu Trekka was for years dogged by suspicions of being a member of the Brotherhood. On Sunday, when Zamalek's Omar Gaber refused to play in the match after hearing of the deaths, his contract was immediately annulled by the club's chairman.

Q: What will happen now?

A: The league has been ordered to suspend play indefinitely. The public prosecutor has ordered an investigation of the violence and Sisi called on officials to get to the "root causes" of what happened. The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, has gone to great lengths to deflect criticism of its handling of the fans. In past cases in which the police were perceived to have used excessive deadly force, none of its members was held accountable and the incidents were seen as an attempt to impose law and order on an unruly crowd. Already, there are claims the Brotherhood was behind the violence or that the bloodshed was part of a plot to stop parliamentary elections scheduled to begin next month.

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