Port Said, Egypt – At the mouth of the Suez Canal, at the most northeastern point in Africa, sits Port Said. The Mediterranean city of just over half a million made few headlines in the year following the beginning of the uprising in Egypt. That all changed earlier this year.
On February 1, 74 football fans died after a match between Ahli and al-Masri, teams from Cairo and Port Said respectively, in what locals describe as a “massacre”.
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The public prosecutor charged 75 people, including nine policemen and three al-Masri officials, for the violence. The prosecutor accused police of allowing “thugs” into the stadium and not checking for fireworks, knives and other weapons.
However, in Port Said, people rejected claims that al-Masri fans would attack Ahli fans after their team won a rare victory, and claimed there were bigger powers that orchestrated the whole incident.
“When there is a football match, the police will close the streeets around the stadium,” said Ayman Hassan Nour, the uncle of 16-year-old Amgad Aslan, who was killed during the violence.
“But that day they didn’t, there was very little security.”
Nour said he saw a lot of “weird” people, people he thought were not from the city. He told Al Jazeera he warned his nephew to be careful at the game, but nothing could stop the Ahli fan from the rare opportunity to see his team play in his hometown.
Sitting in a chair near her brother, Om Amgad [“the mother of Amgad”], began crying, as she remembered the eldest of her three sons.
Om Amgad blamed the incident on remnants from the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president – ousted in February 2011.
“They did this so people would say Mubarak’s era was much better,” she said, and referred to one of the former president’s final speeches, when he said: “It’s either me or chaos.”
While Amgad’s family said they were worried over the lack of security in the country since the uprising began, they supported the revolution that brought Mubarak down.
But the lack of security across the country became tangible for many in Port Said.
“I hope we don’t reach the level of violence like in Syria, [where] a lot of people die. It would become like a civil war,” Nour said.
“When the big people fight, it’s the small people who suffer.”
“It was a day that changed Port Said forever,” said Mahmoud Kandil, a 28-year-old accountant, remembering the night of the match.
“Since that day the whole town dressed in black,” he said.
Kandil, who organises against the military rule that filled the void once Mubarak stepped down, said that, in order for security to return to areas such as Port Said, the revolution must first succeed. And in order for that to happen, he said, figures active in the old regime, such as Admiral Ahmed Fadel, must be removed from power.
Admiral Fadel has been head of the Suez Canal Authority, which oversees both the canal and its ports.
“Everyone in Port Said has something to do with it,” Kandil said. “It’s one big tangled knot.”
Inside one of the city’s dockside industrial zones works Mohamed Wefky. The 25-year-old inspects the sizes of trousers produced at one of the textile factories, and organises his colleagues to demand more rights.
Wefky told Al Jazeera that he had hoped the workers would join last year’s uprising. His efforts eventually bore fruit when, on the morning of February 11, the workers decided that they would stage a protest the following day. Had it not been for Mubarak stepping down that evening, he said, the protest would have happened.
The revolution did eventually come to many of Port Said’s industrial zone workers when, last Autumn, they staged a number of protests and labour strikes demanding rights, including better wages.
After weeks, they claimed victory, and their monthly wage was eventually increased from 450 EGP ($75) to 600 EGP ($100). But in November, when workers again tried to demand their rights, the army and police joined forces in a crackdown.
“I don’t feel we can protest freely. People now are afraid, since they feel they won some privileges and they’re scared to lose them.”
“600 EGP is not enough,” he said, adding that one kilogram of beef costs about 80 EGP. “Most families do not eat meat,” he said.
Asked if workers in Port Said were supporting any one candidate whom they felt would represent them, Wefky replied: “They don’t have time to find a candidate to support, they’re working too much.”
A marginalised city
In Port Said, as elsewhere in Egypt, it remains to be seen whom the majority will elect in Wednesday’s poll. As Wefky explained, for the workers, the election is about bigger issues – such as national security and stability.
Meanwhile, cities such as Port Said remain marginalised and removed from events in the capital, Cairo.
When the Egyptian media covered the football tragedy, Kandil, the accountant, said that they made no mention that five of the victims had actually been from Port Said.
He said that many of his comrades in other cities thought of people from Port Said as killers and pointed out the anti-Port Said graffiti outside the Ahli club in Zamalek, Cairo. “I couldn’t believe they would accept that (al-Masri) fans would kill their countrymen over a game that they won,” Kandil said.
Kandil said the government had “always” punished entire communities, using them as scapegoats to divide Egyptians.
Still fresh in the minds of many people is a claimed 1999 assassination attempt against then-president Hosni Mubarak.
Locals, however, maintain that the alleged assassin, El-Sayyed Hussein Suleiman (known by his nickname “el-Arabi”), was, in fact, a poor man who wanted to deliver a note – bearing a list of grievances – to Mubarak, when he was gunned down by security officers. He was repeating an act from a few decades earlier, when someone in Port Said delivered a letter to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Kandil believes that the government fabricated the case to justify the killing, and to send a message that Mubarak was “untouchable”.
“I don’t want [Amgad’s killers] to be put in jail; I want them to be hanged.”
– Om Amgad
The response affected the whole town, and permits to trade in the free zone were stripped or greatly limited. Kandil said that it was similar to the response after the football tragedy.
When a car left Port Said to pick up Amgad’s father from Cairo after he returned from buying goods in China, Om Amgad said that the car had to switch its license plates to hide that it was from Port Said.
She added that even as the family of one of the “martyrs”, the demonisation of Port Said residents has made them feel unsafe elsewhere in Egypt.
Om Amgad felt that the people of Port Said – and other cities – have long been margianlised, and that that hasn’t changed since the revolution, adding: “People outside [Cairo] never get anything.”
After wiping the tears from her face, the stern expression of the angry mother returned. “I don’t want [Amgad’s killers] to be put in jail; I want them to be hanged.”
With two of the leading candidates, Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, both having ties to Mubarak’s regime, many people in places such as Port Said are sceptical that the new president will bring positive change to the country. That – coupled with the heavy presence of the army that currently rules the country – leaves others asking if the elections will really be a handover of power, or just more of the same.
“Revolution means to change everything from the old regime. The figures of [the] corrupt regime must be removed and held responsible for their actions,” Kandil said.
“This is the simple definition of revolution,” Kandil said. “But it didn’t happen.”
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