Football violence fits in a worsening pattern in Egypt
The tragic clashes that took place at a stadium in Port Said on Wednesday night, killing 74 and injuring over 1,000, might be seen as a simple, if deadly, football disaster. After all, such tragedies have happened elsewhere, including in western Europe (remember Sheffield or the Heysel disaster in Brussels?), and are sparked from a culture of football hooliganism (thriving in Europe for decades and more recently in Egypt too), poor security and the tendency of panicked crowds to stampede. Sounds plausible enough, right?
But few in Egypt would buy that story.
Egyptian nerves are frayed, and not just because of a lingering post-Mubarak transition. There are other examples of insecurity, all from the past week. An HSBC bank was robbed by armed men in broad daylight in a Cairo suburb, while on the same day an armoured truck carrying large amounts of cash was hijacked. A group of Chinese workers from an army cement plant in central Sinai were kidnapped for ransom by Bedouins (they were released after a few days). In eastern Sinai, near the border with Israel, a resort was attacked by another group of Bedouins who said it was built on their land, and after being refused a $660,000 (Dh2.4 million) cash payment, they stripped the place of all valuable items. In Upper Egypt, workers who operate locks on the Nile blocked cruise boats from passing by, demanding higher wages, and in other locations other disgruntled employees blocked the train track to Cairo.
Many tourism agencies are cancelling the sale of luxury cruise packages, a staple of Egyptian tourism, until they see more clearly. In Cairo itself, it's not unusual to see strikers block major roads, adding to the city's abominable traffic problems. Finally, large protests near Tahrir Square have occasionally erupted into violence between different political factions.
Egyptians can't take much more of this. This is a country where 40 per cent live near the poverty line, where business has taken a massive hit since last year's uprising and whose state coffers are emptying fast. Amid lingering uncertainty about its political future - the street, parliament and army continue to be locked in a heated debate over the timeline of the transition to civilian rule - disasters such as what happened at Port Said's stadium add to the gloom, and just as often, foment conspiracy theories.
One of the decisive points of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak was January 28, when the protesters defeated riot police and several hundred police stations across the country were attacked. This prompted the military to take to the streets, while ministry of interior forces - from traffic police to riot control squads to infamous state security officers - went into hiding. It took a few months for the police to return to the streets, but many still hold a grudge: they feel disrespected and no longer intimidate citizens. Many a police chief prefers to sulk in his office rather than risk confrontation with uncontrollable mobs - particularly when these mobs can be armed with anything from the tasers and small arms that have become popular because of the insecurity, to more heavy firearms in places like Sinai, where Bedouins have received an influx of guns from Libya's civil war.
To add to the general confusion, many Egyptians will tell you that this insecurity is planned. The Muslim Brotherhood blamed the stadium disaster on "remnants of the former regime" - a common shorthand for the deep state and former high-level officials - who want to destabilise the political transition and the ascendancy of Islamists.
Many among young revolutionaries believe the military itself is manipulating public opinion with this violence, to get a better bargaining position as it negotiates its exit from power. A common conspiracy theory is that military and the security service officials are behind the chaos, which they hope will help them to avoid being prosecuted for crimes committed before and since the uprising. Indeed, while the army has declared three days of mourning for the victims, the anti-military protest movement is planning a series of marches and protests against the government and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
It is not only political radicals who hold this view. The morning after the football disaster yesterday, a very staid Egyptian investment banker told me he thought the security services were behind it, as intelligence services had warned that "a group of thugs" were heading to Port Said with the intention of disrupting the game, yet security had been suspiciously lax - as videos of riot police standing still as the crowds erupted onto the pitch show. A common view is that the police wanted to punish football fans such as the Ultras, who made a name for themselves during the occupation of Tahrir Square last year for their fearless battles with police and pro-Mubarak thugs.
Are these conspiracies within the realm of possibility? Perhaps - security at the stadium was certainly extremely lax despite warnings.
But the unproven speculation is distracting from the reality that Egypt needs an operational, authoritative (but not authoritarian) police force, as any state does. The question of police reform, and the rebuilding of its self-confidence, has yet to be tackled seriously, with the past year wasted on superficial changes. The new parliament needs to work with the government so that civilians finally get an understanding of what is behind all this violence - the old regime "remnants", "foreign hands" or perhaps more simply a state and a society that still has to forge a new, hopefully more humane, relationship.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo and founder of arabist.net
Updated: February 3, 2012 04:00 AM