x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Author: Stadium deaths in Egypt will ease football rivalries

Clashes raged for the third day in Cairo and other cities across Egypt Saturday between security forces and groups of ultras and protesters.

Egypt's football culture has been shaken and political violence has flared after post-match riots in Port Said claimed the lives of 74 people.
Egypt's football culture has been shaken and political violence has flared after post-match riots in Port Said claimed the lives of 74 people.

CAIRO // Egypt's brotherhood of hardcore football fans known as "ultras" will start from "ground zero" after the riot in Port Said that killed 74 and injured hundreds, a leading author and expert about the groups said.

"Everything will go back to ground zero now, and the ultras will rebuild new relationships with each other," said Mohamed Beshir, the author of the Ultras Book about the sometimes unrecognised role of football fans in Egypt's uprising last year that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

"This tragedy will erase the animosity between them. For the first time, they believe in the value of humanity more than their love of their own football clubs."

The Port Said tragedy has united football mad Egyptians across club loyalties, brought political activists onto the streets and infuriated ordinary Egyptians in a startling and powerful way - angry at the security forces' failure to stop it and their possible complicity in it.

Clashes raged for the third day in Cairo and other cities across the country yesterday between security forces and groups of ultras and protesters. More than a dozen people were killed in Cairo and Suez, many by complications from teargas.

Thousands have been injured.

The violence erupted in the northern city of Port Said on Wednesday when the home team, Al Masry, won a shock defeat over the country's top team, Al Alhy. Frenzied fans stormed the pitch, attacking each other with sticks, stones and bottles and sending players fleeing.

Critics of the ruling generals who have taken over since Mubarak's downfall a year ago have accused them of fomenting violence to prove they are the only force with the strength and resolve to hold the fractured nation together.

Mr Beshir said there was a 30-year history of feuds between Al Ahly, the Cairo club that lost the match on Wednesday night to Al Masry, the home team of Port Said.

"What happened that night began as football hooliganism, but the police have always been able to stop things like this from getting out of control," Mr Beshir said. "They stood by and let it happen."

After the game ended, victims were trampled, stabbed and beaten for roughly an hour.

Video footage on state television showed thousands pouring onto the pitch as fireworks were used as missiles and men chased each other with clubs and metal chairs. Police officers are shown standing by.

The incident was the worst case of sports-related violence in Egyptian history and the worst onfield worldwide in 15 years.

New members of parliament on Thursday described what happened in Port Said as a conspiracy to undermine the country's transition to a new elected government.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - the ruling generals - urged "all political and national forces of this great nation to take a national and historic role and intervene ... to return stability", in a statement posted on its Facebook page.

Gunmen carrying automatic weapons attacked a police station in east Cairo, freed prisoners and set fire to the building, the Agence France-Presse reported.

On Friday, Egypt's prosecutor-general ordered a travel ban on Egyptian Football Association President Samir Zaher, who had been fired a day earlier, and the former Port Said governor Mohammed Abdullah.

Few have directly criticised the ultras for leading the fresh assaults on the Ministry of Interior in Cairo, but political forces from across the spectrum have called for peace.

Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, called for a "Dialogue for Egypt" and a purging of the Ministry of Interior, according to a statement on the group's website.

"This event cannot pass without investigation, accountability and retribution," he said.

"Egypt has recently witnessed many disasters, crimes and tragedies - in the transition period - but no one has been punished for any of them, no retribution for the martyrs, which enticed more thugs, criminals, plotters and saboteurs to do their worst."

Mr Badie echoed comments in recent days from military and political figures that unnamed counter-revolutionary forces were stirring up discontent.

"It has now become evidently clear to everyone that there are individuals who are plotting for burning this homeland and demolition of its institutions," he said. "They are trained for this."

The important role of football ultras in battling police during Egypt's 18-day uprising last year has fuelled conspiracy theories that the police purposely stood by as Al Masry fans attacked Al Ahly supporters.

One of the biggest battles where ultras played a role in defending Tahrir Square took place last February

"There were 10,000 fans of Al Masry and 1,000 of Al Ahly," Mr Beshir said. "If you don't protect the smaller group, it would be a massacre and that is what happened … It was an act of revenge by the police."

Acts of retribution were inevitable, he said.

"Al Ahly are the biggest club in Egypt," Mr Mr Beshir said. "If there is revenge, it will be from more than just the ultras. This team is a hero in many communities."

 

bhope@thenational.ae