Egypt soccer riot: Could it hasten military's exit from politics?

Anger pulsed through Cairo today after 73 soccer fans were killed in clashes yesterday. The protests may provide an opportunity for civilian politicians to come to grips with the military.

Egyptians crowd a train station waiting for their friends and relatives' arrival from Port Said in Cairo on Thursday. At least 73 soccer fans were killed in a post-match riot yesterday that police could not stop.

It's hard to put a positive spin on the events of the past two days in Egypt. At least 73 soccer fans were killed in a post-match riot yesterday that incompetent police could not stop. Today, angry crowds of soccer enthusiasts and activists against continued military rule, took to the streets of Cairo.

What ensued was tear gas, rock throwing, and dozens of injuries around Tahrir Square. In the mid-evening, a group of angry protesters surrounded a central security truck and briefly sought to detain the officers inside before cooler heads prevailed. More turmoil in Egypt, still trying to forge a new path after decades of authoritarian rule and with an economy badly damaged by the upheaval of the past year, is certainly not a good thing.

But people who attended the protest said you only had to walk a few blocks to find calm Cairo streets and a night that feels much like any other. Though the passion and anger of the thousands in and around Tahrir is real, it hasn't come anywhere close to igniting a major conflagration -- at least not yet. And some good may yet come if Egypt's new crop of civilian politicians, recently seated in parliament, can capitalize on it to clip the military's wings.

Writing at the London Review of Books blog, Issandr El Amrani draws attention to the stunning security lapses ahead of the soccer match between the Masry and Ahli teams. Both teams have hardcore "ultras" supporters clubs, and a history of mutual enmity. Typically a match like that would see heavy security, with guards searching fans for weapons before allowing them into the stadium. No such searches were carried out yesterday, allowing a number of Masry supporters to bring in knives and clubs that were used in the violence after the final whistle. 

Many Egyptians believe that this may have been deliberate: a piece of engineered chaos intended to convince the public that a strong guiding hand from the military is needed to keep the country secure. But even if that were the intent (and there is no evidence yet), it backfired. What everyone is talking about in Cairo today, from protesters to new members of parliament, is the stunning failure of the police and of the military that continues to rule Egypt.

Amrani writes that it may be nudging the Muslim Brotherhood, the new power in parliament, towards demanding faster presidential elections:

Until yesterday, the top concern in Cairo was the mounting tension between revolutionary protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) now controls 46 per cent of parliament and is in a position to negotiate – alone if it wants to – the terms by which the military will transfer power to civilians later this year. The protest movement wants an immediate handover of power, either to a senior judge as interim president, to parliament, or to a president to be elected as soon as possible – and certainly earlier than 15 June, the date the generals have set for a presidential election. The Brothers, along with the more hardline Salafi Islamists, were sticking with the military schedule, but what happened last night has changed that.

In a special session of parliament today, the idea of forming a government of national salvation was discussed. MPs, including those of the FJP, also want to sack the interior minister and interrogate the chief of intelligence. It is as yet unclear whether they have the power – legally or practically – to do this, and what it might mean for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But it is a first sign of confrontation between the Brothers and the SCAF, and is encouraging the Tahrir protesters to hold fast to their demand for accountability and civilian rule sooner rather than later.

The sooner the military is removed from politics, the better the chances Egypt will have of building a new form of governance where powers flow from civilian politicians empowered by the ballot box. SCAF has been in power for nearly a year and has ruled much like the military-backed regimes of the past half century. The longer SCAF remains, the more influence it will exert on the writing of a new constitution and resist civilian restraints on its powers.

So that's the good that may come out of this tragedy. And the protests could still yet swell. It's easy to dismiss the ultras as a rabble or thugs, but they are highly organized and have an ethos of pushing back against confrontation. (I've embedded a clip of an Ultra Ahlawy display of mourning for a killed member from last year at the bottom to get a sense of their level of organization). I also highly recommend this blog post, an apparent account by one of the Ahli supporters who attended the match in Port Said to get a feel for his group, and the security failures that left 73 people dead yesterday (but take it with a grain of salt; I haven't independently confirmed it's accurate, but it passes the smell test). 

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