Football and politics in Egypt: An explosive mix

The football riot that led to the deaths of 74 youths in Port Said is indicative of the dire state of affairs in Egypt.

Port Said Football Victims Mourned
The football riot at Port Said in Egypt on February 1 ended with the deaths of 74 fans [GALLO/GETTY]

Canberra, Australia – Football and politics have always proved a volatile mix. It has caused many diplomatic incidents and even a war. It has been used by regimes as a tool of state control. On February 1, 2012, in the Egyptian city of Port Said, a mix of revolution, football and politics, took it to a whole bloody new level.

What started as a match between al-Ahly, one of the leading Egyptian football teams, and al-Masry, the champions of the city of Port Said at their home stadium, turned into pure carnage. The facts of what transpired that night are still not fully clear. What is known is an intense rivalry exists between the two teams, and no love is lost between the Masry fans and the Ahly Ultras, the most hardcore group of al-Ahly fans, modelled on European Ultra fans.

After al-Masry won the game 2-1, the Masry fans stormed the pitch, chasing the Ahly players. In the stands, they crossed the barriers separating them from the Ultras, where the police force – who normally stand guard between the two groups – had suspiciously withdrawn, the separation barriers lifted. The field was completely open for the Masry fans to brutally charge the Ahly players and Ultras. The result: more than 74 dead.

An Ultras blogger who survived the night wrote: “The people attacking us were armed with batons, knives, rocks, glass, fireworks and all kinds of weapons that would be used in more than football trouble.” The Ultras had been cornered by the Masry fans into the narrow alleyway leading to the stadium exit. The stadium gates were shut in front of them, as the Masry fans closed in.

Amid panic and a stampede, many Ultras were crushed to death, while others were beaten and stabbed. At the latest toll, 74 men of various ages had lost their lives. In the aftermath, conspiracy theories abound and the SCAF and politicians were quick to blame the now infamous “hidden hands” as the planner and perpetrators of these attacks. Eye witness accounts collected in the aftermath of the events by the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights suggest that security forces had allowed this massacre to happen.

Reprisal politics

Football hooliganism is inexcusable, and should be dealt with by the full force of the law. Some have argued that the Port Said bloodshed of February 1 is a manifestation of violent football hooliganism that is a threat to the revolution. The opposite, which could also be argued, is that the Ultras were targeted because they were an integral part of the revolution – the violent events that erupted simply don’t add up as only pure football violence. The fact that riot police were caught on camera standing by as the violence unfolded shows that they were complicit in the massacre.

The Ultras Ahlawy, together with their arch-rivals, the Zamalek Ultras White Knights, have been a thorn in the side of the regime and SCAF since January 25, 2011. As a large and very organised group of aggressive disenfranchised youth bound together by a common love of football and a strong hatred for the authorities, they repeatedly played pivotal roles in many clashes with the regime in 2011; often they were at the frontline of the protests, taking bullets and facing tear gas as they chanted profane and taunting calls against the Security Forces about to attack them. They had a leading role in almost all clashes against the regime, from the 18 days of the uprising to the Israeli embassy protest in September, the clashes on Muhammad Mahmoud Street in November, and finally at the Egyptian parliament in December.

The Ultras are a force to be reckoned with: they have the numbers, the organisation and the outspoken aggressive disdain for the police forces that other, more fragmented protest groups may lack. Once shunned by many as mere football hooligans, they now command respect and solidarity from other activists. In any confrontation with the police, they are busy organising ambulance routes and manning the frontlines, locking arms and calling on others to stand their ground as tear gas canisters are lobbed in their direction. They’re also quite young. The youngest dead Ultra in the Port Said clashes was just 14 years old. The loss of so many young men’s lives at a football match has hit Egypt hard.

Hours after the devastating events, thousands of Ahly and Zamalek fans joined the victims’ families at Cairo’s Ramsis station, putting aside their rivalry to receive the dead and the injured arriving from Port Said. As the train rolled in, the hall thundered with chants of “down with military rule“. The Ultras issued a statement, calling for nothing less than the resignation of the head of SCAF, Field Marshal Tantawi, and holding the SCAF accountable for the avoidable deaths of their 74 contemporaries.

Many Ultras believe that the massacre was an orchestrated retaliation for their continuous anti-SCAF stance and their active role in demonstrations. Several days ago at another match, thousand of Ultras were also chanting “down, down with military rule”. They continue to be a well-organised foe of the ruling military junta. The Ultras perceived the events as a direct premeditated attack by SCAF, because of their political activities.

After the events, the Egyptian parliament convened for an emergency session and the SCAF announced a three-day period of mourning. PM Ganzouri accepted the resignation of the governor of Port Said and fired its head of police. A parliamentary investigation was launched, with the final report blaming both the Ultras and the police forces, but saying the police “enabled” the massacre.

To reform or not to reform

On February 9, protesters, including many Ultras, marched from al-Ahly Club in Zamalek to the ministry of interior in downtown Cairo, calling for the end of military rule. Given their history with the authorities and their fierce loyalty to their comrades, it was expected that the march would end in clashes with Central Security Forces. And it did.

The Kasr El Nil Bridge – the site of so many significant protest marches in 2011 – rocked gently with the force of thousands of angry youth jumping and chanting as they filed across the bridge, chanting loud and profane taunts against the SCAF, the Port Said fans and the military police. Once in Tahrir, the groups continued to spill into Muhammad Mahmoud Street, where a large wall has stood since the bloody clashes of October 2011. This wall, a pile of concrete blocks on the corner of the AUC campus, was erected by the army to block protesters from reaching the ministry of interior, just two streets away. In fact, all routes to the ministry were been blocked by walls or barbed wire, and as protesters closed in, the sight of rows of armed Central Security Forces in riot gear with their visors down was unmistakable. The CSF were clearly prepared for violence and so were the protesters. Street battles raged for three days around the interior ministry. In Suez, protesters there battled the police. At last count, there were 15 deaths and several hundred injured across the country, as the youth raged against the events which took place at Port Said.

The Egyptian Football Association, seeking to calm the Ultra Ahlawy thirst for revenge, imposed a two year ban on Al Masry. However, since this year’s football season has been suspended, this ban is effectively for one season, further enraging the Ahlawy Ultra fans as too lenient. On the other side, the Masry fans responded to the ban by rioting and attempting to storm the Suez Canal Authority building on March 23, clashing with the army. Emotions continue to run high, as the Ultras Ahlawy continue to ask for justice for their fallen. Until today, the real masterminds behind the massacre remain at large. Many fingers continue to point towards the Egyptian police.

It is clear one of the things Egypt needs most at this stage is police reform on a large scale, similar to what has happened in Georgia, where thousands of Soviet-era police officers were fired in a day, and the whole security apparatus was turned inside out. The mentality of the security forces in Egypt has always been geared to protect the regime, not its people. Since January 25 there have been some cosmetic changes, a few generals forced into early retirement, some investigations into the conduct of officers, and a re-naming of Mubarak’s feared Amn Dawla [“State Security”], Egypt’s Stasi, into the more benign sounding Amn Watani [“National Security”]. Many have cynically dismissed these changes as simple rebranding exercises, with the majority of officers still maintaining a Mubarak-era mentality of “regime first”.

SCAF’s mismanagement of post-Mubarak Egypt continues to reach epic proportions. They find themselves in a classic Catch-22 situation with regards to police reform. If they listen to the aspirations of the people and fully reform the police, they lose a valuable tool of state control. Should reform take place, where would the buck stop? Real reform in state institutions might later have personal ramifications for SCAF itself, as Egyptians are already calling for civilian control over the military, which may lead to investigations of the military junta down the line. On the other hand, should SCAF choose not to fully reform the police, they risk continued clashes with the people, who no longer fear the police – and consider it one of the last remaining bastions of the old regime.

The Port Said massacre provided further impetus for the youth to rally against the military. Bloody incidents, with violent reactions, are likely to continue if the facts of the events in Port Said are not fully and transparently investigated. For now, football in Egypt remains indefinitely suspended, but the deaths of 74 young men continues to weigh heavily on Egyptians and, indeed, the world.

Adel Abdel Ghafar is a PhD scholar at the Australian National University.

Follow him on Twitter: @dooolism