Port Said: New centre for Egypt’s revolution

As martyrs continue to fall in Port Said, in Tahrir and across the country, “the Morsi government is losing legitimacy”.

Graffiti in the vicinity of Tahrir Square illustrates Canal city figures, with arms and radio in hand, while traditional Port Saidi music has been popularised as wider segments of society [Sarah Mousa/Al Jazeera]

Over a year ago, the Suez Canal city of Port Said was thrust into the centre of Egypt’s ongoing revolution. It had been almost a year since a popular uprising had ousted Hosni Mubarak. But it had become apparent that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would not facilitate the sort of democratic transition protesters had hoped it would.

The period of SCAF rule, which ended with Mohamed Morsi’s election and assumption of presidential office in June, saw more military prisoners than had three decades of Mubarak rule.

Throughout the fall months of 2011, Cairo witnessed SCAF brutality – protesters were targeted by snipers and trampled with military tanks in October’s “Maspero Massacre”,  and were tear-gassed and shot at with live, rubber and khartoush bullets during November’s Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes and December’s sit-in at the Cabinet Building off Tahrir Square. 

Dozens of protesters were killed, some specifically targeted, for their opposition roles by a vengeful military regime.

But none of these SCAF crackdowns or those of the Mubarak regime matched the brutality of February 2012’s Port Said Stadium massacre. The soccer match, between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry teams, would otherwise have been unremarkable.

Port Said Stadium massacre

Like any other game, team fan clubs had gathered at the stadium and viewers from across the country had come down to watch the match. At the end of the match, chaos erupted: thugs, armed with knives and batons, attacked Ultras Ahly club members, throwing them off bleachers and mercilessly beating them. 

 Egypt’s Port Said hit by renewed deadly clash

Fans ran frantically for the exit, only to find that stadium doors had been locked. The sparse security present stood idly, while the Port Said governor, a regular attendee of local matches, was nowhere in sight. For approximately two hours, the nation watched on their television screens as over 70 Ahly fans were killed in the stadium.

The Ultras Ahly members had been the most active and vocal opponents of the SCAF junta; SCAF’s message, that resistance would not be tolerated, was clear to all. Official discourse insisted that the incident could be blamed on Al-Masry team fans or Port Said locals.

Interviewed immediately after the incident, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, offering no condolences, urged the Egyptian population to act. “Why are the Egyptian people silent? They must do something,” he stated, in his perceived imploration for civil war. 

The next day, Cairo saw marches led by Ultras Ahly members and joined by Ahly team coach and hundreds of other protesters. As the activists neared the Ministry of Interior, they were met – as they had been accustomed to – by tear gas and khartoush bullets. This round of protests is especially remembered for the number of protesters who lost their eyes, as the security forces seemingly made a game out of blinding activists.

The recently-elected parliament at the time, dominated by Muslim Brotherhood members, echoed SCAF and national media discourse, insisting that the Port Said Stadium massacre was carried out by a mysterious third party, by foreign hands or by revolutionaries themselves who were in actuality paid thugs rather than political protesters.

A year has passed since the Port Said Stadium massacre and the city has been once again been thrust into the centre of Egypt’s revolution, as 21 of the defendants accused of the killings, including many young students and Al-Masry Ultras members, were sentenced to death. Morsi, who has openly challenged the judiciary over past months, called for respect for this court decision.

At the announcement of the verdict, protests erupted in Port Said, and were met violently by Security Forces. Over two dozen protesters fell dead on the first day of protests. A funeral march the next day was met with more violence, leaving additional civilians dead.

As the government announced a curfew on Canal cities, protesters continued to gather throughout the week, completely disregarding government orders. In recognition of an inability to exert control, the curfew was changed but not cancelled.

At a press conference hosted by the Port Said governor to announce his support for the curfew, Al-Masry fan club members erupted in protest, calling for the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime and declaring the city of Port Said independent. 

While protests continued throughout the week, this past Friday witnessed the opposition’s domination of the city. Through pouring rain, thousands began their march at the Port Said Stadium and continued to the Governorate building and police headquarters, where they staged sit-ins calling for the resignation of the Morsi-appointed governor and police chief.

Marginalised by the government

Some protesters hoisted the flag of their governorate, adding to it with black marker the line “Republic of Port Said”. Gamal Abdel Nasser-era music praising the city of Port Said as the heart of resistance played in the background. 

Embittered Port Saidis expressed rage not only over those martyred, but for what they perceive as a political antagonising of their city on part of the Morsi government. This sentiment can be traced to the Mubarak era, when in 1999 a poor Port Saidi man approached the then-president. While many say the man was carrying a letter addressed to Mubarak, the regime accused the man of an attempted assassination.

Residents complain that the city had since been systematically marginalised by the Mubarak government, which neglected the city’s public infrastructure and revoked the city’s duty-free status that had boosted its prosperity since the honour was granted by Anwar Sadat.  

The SCAF added to this sentiment, by leaving security forces accused of murder in Port Said during the 18 day uprising that ousted Mubarak uncharged, and laying blame on locals for the Port Said Stadium massacre. Some Port Saidis believe that the massacre was intently planned to unfold in their city as to further add to its marginalisation.

Parliament’s echoing of the official discourse only added to Port Saidi distaste for the Brotherhood, which did not receive Port Saidi support in presidential elections. In the midst of this past week’s Port Said protests and deaths, Morsi travelled to Germany; to many, this is symbolic of his disregard for the situation.

But Port Said had not always been a neglected city. During the Nasser era, Port Said was central to national pride. Port Saidis were known for their popular armed resistance of the 1956 tripartite aggression on Egypt. Port Saidis were virtually cut off during the attacks, left to defend themselves.

Residents would gather in cafés to listen to the radio, which broadcast expressions, widespread support for the city and its people. Port Saidis sacrificed tremendously and repeatedly rose to resist as the 1967 invasion of Egypt put the city on the front lines of an Israeli occupation of Sinai.

The city’s culture remains marked by its long years of resistance. Throughout the ongoing revolution, protesters have sought strength from this culture. Graffiti in the vicinity of Tahrir Square illustrates Canal city figures, with arms and radio in hand, while traditional Port Saidi music has been popularised as wider segments of society can now relate to the sense of resistance and sacrifice which mark the tradition. 

As martyrs continue to fall in Port Said, in Tahrir and across the country, the Morsi government is quickly losing legitimacy. Its complete disregard for protests which at their core are driven by calls for justice, the same calls of the uprising which toppled a regime and ultimately brought Morsi to power, is a dangerous decision. The Port Saidis, a people characterised by their resilience, may just be the ones to take the ongoing Egyptian revolution into its next phase.

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt. She is currently a graduate student at the Center of Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.