x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Port Said in turmoil after boy's killing

Roads and Suez Canal blocked by protesters as Egyptian city boils over after football club is banned for a year over February rampage.

CAIRO // Demonstrators in Port Said yesterday closed roads and forced ships using the Suez Canal to be redirected in a second day of protest over the suspension of the city's football team.

A 13-year-old was shot dead and 18 injured in clashes overnight Friday and early yesterday in response to the Egyptian Football Association's ruling on a riot that killed 74 people on February 1. Yesterday, protesters blocked main roads and shut down the harbour.

The decision to ban Al Masry from playing until 2013 and to close its stadium for three years was considered by many to be an unfairly broad punishment for an incident that many in the city, and across the country, suspect was an attempt to destabilise the country by supporters of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

The Port Said stadium riot was Egypt's worst incident of football-related violence, but the causes have yet to be determined. Thousands of fans rushed onto the field just moments after Al Masry won 3-1 against the Cairo team Al Ahly. Steel doors at a key exit were closed, causing dozens of people to be crushed to death. There were also reports of stab wounds, fireworks used as weapons and people thrown over stadium walls.

On March 15, prosecutors ordered 75 people, including nine security officials, to face trial.

The deadly riot renewed protests against the police, who have struggled to regain legitimacy and restore order after the resignation of Mubarak last year.

The ruling on Friday by Egypt's top football body was risky, said Abdel-Monem Aly, director of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"There was a need for justice. If they don't punish the Al Masry team, then what will happen with the fans of Al Ahly who are a much bigger group across the country?"

Mr Aly said the weekend protests are the latest symptom of a country undergoing a lengthy and difficult transition to a new democracy. The past year has witnessed a groundswell of street activism, including strikes, blockades and rock fights.

"The revolution gave people the impression they could do anything," Mr Aly said. "But that also means that anybody who was victimised or lacking in some way is taking to the streets to demand change. At the same time, many of the organs of the state are not doing their job, so we are in a very weak state."

After the February football match, the military immediately filled a security vacuum in Port Said when police refused to return to the streets. Armoured vehicles set up checkpoints and created a ringed defence around the Suez Canal Authority building and other government sites.

Port Said citizens complained at the time that they were ostracised for an incident in which the vast majority of residents did not take part.

The announcement of the ban rekindled those complaints and hundreds took to the streets to demonstrate against what they described as a punishment meted out on the whole population.

The decision means that Port Saidians would be cut out of football - a beloved sport in Egypt - until the 2013/2014 season of the Egyptian Premier League.

In an interview with the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper, the interim head of the association, Anwar Saleh, defended the decisions, saying they were in accordance with the football authority's regulations.

Meantime, on the political front, Egyptian parliamentarians were meeting yesterday to name a panel to draft the country's new constitution amid deep polarisation over the process.

The meeting was likely to be part of a weeks-long struggle over the charter that will define Egypt's identity. After the panel writes the constitution, it is to be put to a vote in a national referendum. The old 1971 constitution was abolished after the uprising that overthrew Mubarak.

 

bhope@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by AP