x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Take football away in Egypt, and rioting is the only game left

The bands of raggedy boys marching into battle in Egypt have no better place to be. They are ready to die for football because they have been offered no alternatives.

It's hard for boys growing up in Egypt. There are no sports facilities, no parks and no dancehalls, not to mention few opportunities to find a girlfriend or a good job. Attending a football match was about the best that could be hoped. Not anymore.

On Wednesday, 74 Egyptians died in a riot at a Port Said stadium. It seems antagonistic fans flooded the pitch after the game, while the few security forces either looked on or were unable to stop the brawl.

The blame started flying immediately. Many Egyptians claimed security forces had incited the fight, or else did nothing about it to prove that Egypt was just a step away from chaos. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces wanted to make this point, they reasoned, because protests calling for an end to their rule had accelerated since January 25, the first anniversary of Egypt's revolution.

Others maintain that thugs of the old regime started the melee, those nameless, elusive mercenaries blamed with nearly every incident of violence. People seemed certain the riot was planned, although there was no hard proof and perhaps never will be.

How exactly each of those individuals lost their lives will take time to ascertain because more are dying every day. In the past few days, angry young men - protesters, some of them football "ultras" - have again been clashing with central security forces near the ministry of interior in downtown Cairo, for the third time in as many months.

In November and December peaceful sit-ins were forcibly disrupted. Demonstrators filled Tahrir Square in protest and the ensuing street fights, lasting many days, killed 50 and injured thousands.

In November, I saw people crushed to death while running away from security and military forces entering the Square. It's quite possible that many died in similar circumstances trying to escape the Port Said stadium rather than in the fight. But this possibility was hardly considered before protests erupted and the media bought the conspiracy story. Within hours, headlines described: "The Port Said Massacre".

Yes, Egypt's leaders are capable of instigating violence to present themselves as the people's defenders. They have also proven criminally inept at crowd control and crisis management long predating the current unrest. The earthquake of 1992 and many transport catastrophes were scenes of horror, with no relief for the injured and homeless, and bodies piling in morgues like refuse.

Egypt's authorities have never bothered about public safety. Most public facilities lack sufficient exits and fire extinguishers. Building codes are circumvented with baksheesh, or bribes. People are mowed down daily trying to cross the superhighways bisecting their neighbourhoods because there are so few pedestrian bridges.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of this disregard for public welfare is that it has gone uncontested for so long. The public has been complicit in its own abuse but is unable to admit it. The Port Said tragedy follows the same narrative: it was planned, it had to be. Citizens are always the victims, after all.

On Thursday night, protesters dismantled the concrete block walls the military had erected on Mohammed Mahmoud Street feeding into Tahrir. It had a fine metaphorical resonance, people tearing down the obstacles to freedom installed by their latest oppressors.

These street battles, seen by some as a freedom fight, are displays of sheer desperation, of thwarted male energy, of anger and confusion. The bands of raggedy boys I see marching into battle have no better place to be. They are ready to die because they have been offered no alternatives.

The walls they are trying to dismantle are within themselves, within a society where responsibility is traditionally relinquished to the state and religion. Those life-affirming moments of consensus and caring that characterised last year's Tahrir have faded into memory.

Downtown was subdued on Thursday, with women marching and crying in the Square. But that night as sirens wailed and black smoke billowed, the shops on my street stayed open.

People are growing accustomed to the clashes, conspiracy theories and body counts. It's the new game in town, one everyone can watch and anyone can play, but no one really wins.


Maria Golia is author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt

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