x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

In Port Said, a feeling of ostracism after riots

Blame for the post-match violence in which 74 people died has swung from the authorities to residents of Egypt's port city.

Al Arosa Cafe in Port Said was vandalised by a mob because of rumours that its owners brother was among a group of Hosni Mubarak supporters who allegedly engineered the riot at a football match that left 74 people dead.
Al Arosa Cafe in Port Said was vandalised by a mob because of rumours that its owners brother was among a group of Hosni Mubarak supporters who allegedly engineered the riot at a football match that left 74 people dead.

PORT SAID, EGYPT // Across the street from Al Masry football club's stadium in Port Said stands a popular wedding hall where decorations are being prepared for this weekend.

The marriage of a wealthy couple had been planned for last Saturday. But it was rescheduled after 74 people died in a riot at the football stadium just three days earlier.

"Who could celebrate?" said Adel Atta, a 27-year-old unemployed man, as he passed through a military checkpoint outside the stadium where victims were stabbed, beaten and trampled to death after the home side's surprise 3-1 victory over the Cairo club Al Ahly, with which it has a long rivalry.

The resumed wedding preparations on Thursday night were among the first signs that this Mediterranean city is slowly returning to normal.

Yet across the clean, uncrowded streets, people spoke of their regret and bitterness about an event that transformed their hometown overnight into a symbol of lawlessness and, some say, murderous hooliganism.

In the first days after the game, Egyptians took to the streets across the country to demonstrate against the Ministry of Interior for not securing the stadium after the match.

There were rampant conspiracy theories about former members of Hosni Mubarak's regime hiring thugs to wreak havoc to disrupt the country's transition to democracy.

But more than a week later, the blame shifted to the people of Port Said.

A campaign to boycott the city flashed across Twitter and Facebook, and commentators on television started to lash out at the citizens for allowing the violence and even being involved in it.

"All of a sudden Port Said, the City of valour and courage, is now being referred to as the City of murderers," said one person who goes by Abou_Eita on Twitter, referring to an Arabic language message spreading on the site on Thursday.

"This is hateful branding!"

"No one wants to leave the city," said Salama El Sayed, 48, an oil supplier who owns a cargo ship based in Port Said.

"Every time someone drives out on the main road, they start throwing rocks. They know they are from Port Said from the licence plate."

Mr El Sayed said vegetable and fruit supplies to the city dropped sharply in the days after the game.

Port Said, a small, triangular piece of land flanked to the east by the Suez Canal's opening into the Mediterranean and to the west by Lake Manzala, relies on imports for everything "like an island", he said.

"They didn't want to make deliveries here," said Mr El Sayed, who had taken the past week off work because of the events.

"It was like they were punishing us for what happened."

The city of more than half a million people, one of Egypt's richest,is a major centre for fishing, chemicals, food production, tourism and refuelling for the ships passing through the canal.

Four days after the riot, a flyer circulated in Port Said.

"Now that all of Egypt is against Port Said, we will close the Suez Canal," it said.

Dozens of young men tried to do so, but were blocked from the canal authority's headquarters by the military, which deployed tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

The police simply disappeared.

The youths' anger was instead channelled into the same conspiracy theories that led thousands to protest and later clash with police in Cairo, killing 15 more people and injuring hundreds.

They marched to Port Said's July 23rd Street, named after the 1952 revolution, and destroyed Al Arosa Cafe, owned by Adel Omar, the brother of a businessman with ties to Mubarak called Gamal Omar.

The youths demolished a glass wall that enclosed the cafe with rocks and pieces of metal.

By Thursday, there was little left but shattered glass, receipts and a few pieces of broken chairs.

Profanities spray-painted on the wall had been covered with blue squares of paint by locals.

"They took everything," said Gamal Mohammed Bayut, 55, the owner of a neighbouring hair salon that was also looted. "Sixty people worked in that cafe and now they don't have jobs. The owner had nothing to do with what happened at the stadium, but they needed someone to blame."

Sitting in cafes around Port Said, residents talk of nothing but the deaths.

In analysing news reports and gathering accounts of fans at the game, they had find themselves in an endless loop of questions.

Were Port Said citizens involved?

Were they victims of a plot by members of Mubarak's regime?

How could this happen?

There had long been a strong rivalry between fans of Al Masry and teams from Cairo - Al Ahly and Zamalek - but the worst that had ever come of it was a few youths getting roughed up and cars damaged.

After a match last year, Al Ahly fans broke the glass around the train station.

"The thing I keep going back to is, why would Al Masry fans attack Al Ahly fans after we beat them three to one?" Mr El Sayed said. "This was our best victory against Al Ahly since 1948. We weren't angry. We were supposed to celebrate."

Several people said they were also bitter because the rest of the country refused to acknowledge that Port Said citizens had died in the chaos.

The government has not released a breakdown because investigations are continuing.

Port Saidians said 17 of their own were among the 74 dead.

Egyptian news stations focused on the 52 people from Port Said detained over the violence.

"We are all very sad," said Ahmed Salam, 32, a shipping company owner.

"There is nothing else we can talk about."

Mr Salam was at the game that night. But he left after the crowds started getting violent in the first half

He saw fans carrying knives and shooting fireworks into the crowds.

The police, he later learnt from a relative who is an officer, were not armed and a crucial exit was blocked, leading to trampling and suffocations.

"There is no way to understand," he said.

"For sure, the police had a role.

"For sure, there were people from outside who came in with weapons … We can blame anyone, but we are still left with what happened."

bhope@thenational.ae