Egypt soccer riot: Whatever actually happened, public fury is what counts

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

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Police stand guard as soccer fans chant slogans during a protest condemning the death that happened on Wednesday at Port Said stadium, near the Interior Ministry, in front of the parliament in Cairo Thursday.

What really happened in Port Said yesterday doesn't matter right now. But eventually, the reality of the events that culminated in 73 dead fans after a soccer match in the Egyptian city will matter a great deal.

How can these contradictory statements be true? Because today, no matter how banal the series of mistakes that led to the deaths after local team Masry surprisingly defeated Ahly, Egypt's biggest club, tens of thousands of angry citizens are on the streets, and they're blaming Egypt's military junta for the deaths.

In the forefront are the Ultras Ahlawy, the hardcore Ahly supporters group which many of Wednesday's victims belonged to. Many of them blame the military for what happened, insisting that it gave orders to cause or allow the carnage to take revenge on the ultras, who helped organize the barricades at Tahrir during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak last January and February and have participated in numerous street demonstrations against police brutality and the military since.

Could this be true? Maybe. There's no evidence for that position, however, and the likeliest answer is (as always) the simplest one. But the fact that many people are seized with the notion that there was a conspiracy here, and are acting out on it is a political reality that will have to be dealt with. Clashes broke out between protesters near Tahrir Square and riot police in the early evening in Cairo, with teargas volleys and rock-throwing in Tahrir.

Many on the scene say the situation could deteriorate further, with fury mixing with grief among the ultras who, after all, are accustomed to violent confrontations with the cops. One of Ahly's ultra fan groups issued a statement on its website calling for a "war to defend the revolution."

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Battle of the camel

Today is the anniversary of what Egyptian's call "the battle of the camel," the day last year that close political allies of Mubarak dispatched a group of thugs to Tahrir Square, some riding camels and horses, to break heads and end the swelling popular challenge to his rule. Eleven revolutionaries were killed that day and the attack crystallized the fury of millions of Egyptians. In hindsight, there might have been some hope on Feb. 1, 2011, that Mubarak could hold on. But by the end of Feb. 2, his fate was written.

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.

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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