Blame-trading in Egypt as 22 die in soccer stampede
CAIRO // Marwan El Sayed and his friends could not wait to see their first football game in two years. Instead, they witnessed a brutal melee of soccer fans pursued by police who dispersed the crowd with tear gas and birdshot, killing at least 22 people in the stampede.
“I could see the people down there screaming, and saying people are dying,” said the 18-year-old student from the American University in Cairo. “There was a guy ... other guys were holding him and taking him to the side of the road. They were trying to wake him up but he must’ve been dead.”
The game between the ENNPI and Zamalek started late but went ahead despite the pre-match violence. The teams drew 1-1 but it was the last match for the foreseeable future with the Egyptian government announcing afterwards that the national football league would be suspended indefinitely.
Omar Gaber, a midfielder for Zamalek, refused to play following the bloodshed.
“If it will be the last time I play football then I’ll be a beggar. I won’t play while my brothers are dying outside,” he said. “I was with them in bitter and sweet and I wish I was with them in the middle of the death. Their rights won’t be wasted.”
The Ultras White Knights, a hard-core group of Zamalek fans, wrote on their Facebook page that 28 had died, while the health ministry put the toll at 19. Egypt’s public prosecutor Hisham Barakat, meanwhile, said that 22 had been killed. Dozens were injured.
At least 18 people have been arrested after Mr Barakat’s office ordered the arrest of Ultras leaders.
Panic broke out at the stadium on Sunday after police fired tear gas into a narrow enclosed space where about 10,000 fans had gathered in an attempt to enter the grounds. The Air Defense stadium is smaller than other venues, and only one gate was being used. The bottleneck, lack of organisation surrounding entry, and generally poor crowd control practices turned out to be deadly.
The Egyptian interior ministry said security forces were trying to prevent fans without tickets from storming the stadium. A spokesperson, Hani Abdul Latif, told satellite channel CBC that the ministry did not want to open up games to spectators, citing security concerns, but eventually caved in to public pressure.
However, the Ultras called the killings “premeditated”, saying that the club’s chairman, Mortada Mansour had colluded with police to break the spirit of their group.
Sunday’s match was one of the first Egyptian Premier League games that allowed fans to enter after the league was suspended in 2012. That suspension was prompted by the deaths of 74 fans killed during a riot that broke out at a match in Port Said – one of the deadliest incidents of violence surrounding a football game in Egypt.
A forensic examiner for the area surrounding the Air Defense stadium said that most of the deaths on Sunday were caused by a stampede of fans, either through suffocation or blunt trauma, including broken necks. The Ultras said on Facebook that families of the dead were forced to sign papers attributing the deaths to the stampede rather than suffocation due to tear gas.
While Egypt’s interior ministry said security forces were trying to prevent the crowd from illegal entry, Mr El Sayed said he saw police pursuing the football fans as far as 200 metres away from the stadium. He and his friends were driving along the road leading up to the grounds when they encountered clashes. When Mr El Sayed crouched down onto the back seat of his car, he heard birdshot striking the vehicle’s doors, presumably by police firing at fans who were running away.
He and his friends quickly removed Zamalek scarves and jerseys for fear the police would target them as Ultras. The Ultras White Knights are one of a few groups of hard-core football fans that formed the core of confrontations with police during the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and its aftermath. The incident in Port Said also claimed the lives of Ultras who support Zamalek’s main rival club, Al Ahly. The Ultras White Knights also have a contentious relationship with Zamalek’s chairman Mr Mansour.
Mr Mansour is a staunch supporter of president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the former army chief who has waged a sweeping crackdown on dissent since he led the 2013 overthrow of former president Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader.
In statements to the media, Mr Mansour blamed thugs in the crowd and a lack of tickets, insinuating that less financially well-off fans were trying to sneak into the stadium. Requirements for tickets to be received through the club, which included providing a copy of an ID along with five personal photos, were not uniformly implemented.
Mr El Sayed disagreed with these comments, however, and said that wealthy students were among those without tickets. In any case, he said, the lack of tickets did not excuse such excessive force.
“I had friends that died with tickets,” added Mr El Sayed, saying that they were only college students.
* Additional reporting from Bloomberg and Associated Press