Al Ahli fans seek to escape the Port Said stadium (Source: Reuters)
By James M. Dorsey
An Egyptian parliamentary inquiry into this month’s death of 74 soccer fans in the Suez Canal city of Port Said has blamed fans and lax security for the worst incident in the country’s sports history. The inquiry’s preliminary report also suggests without going into detail that unidentified thugs were involved in the violence that erupted at the end of a match between Port Said’s Al Masri SC and crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC.
The report is scheduled to be debated in parliament on Monday. It was drafted by a committee headed by Ashraf Thabet, the assembly’s first deputy speaker and a member of the Salafist Al-Nur Party, which is believed to enjoy backing from Saudi Arabia and advocates adherence to Islam in line with 7th century practices at the time of the Prophet Mohammed.
A controversial member of Al Nur, Salafist preacher Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shaha, was last week attempting to talk his way out of reports that he had condemned soccer as a sin and said that the 74 fans were killed because they had been watching a forbidden form of entertainment. Mr. El-Shaha charged that he had been misquoted.
The parliamentary report is unlikely to reduce tension between the fans or ultras – militant, well-organized, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer support groups modelled on similar organizations in Serbia and Italy – and Egypt’s ruling military and security forces. At least 16 people were killed in the wake of the Port Said incident in six days of fighting between security forces and youths seeking to storm the interior ministry in central Cairo.
The military last week said troops and tanks would ensure security in advance of a general strike last weekend called by activists and youth groups to demand the immediate return of the military to their barracks and the formation of a civilian government. The failure of the strike on the first anniversary of the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak after religious leaders called on Egyptians to ignore it signalled the increasing isolation of the ultras – the military’s most militant opposition – and other activists who led the protests that forced the Egyptian leader to resign after 30 years in office.
Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group that lost scores in the Port Said incident, called in a statement on Facebook on the eve of the release of the parliamentary report for retaliation against those responsible for the death of their comrades. The statement also called for the cleansing of the interior ministry, under which the security forces, the focus of their animosity whom they accuse of engineering the fatal brawl, resort.
The interior ministry or dakhliya symbolizes for many ultras their battle for karama or dignity. Their dignity is vested in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya, particularly in the wake of Port Said; a sense that they no longer can be abused by security forces without recourse; and the fact that they no longer have to pay off policemen to stay out of trouble.
“This Wednesday will mark two weeks since the passing of some of Egypt’s finest youth. They died because they refused to live without dignity and screamed loud calling for freedom,” the Ultras Ahlawy statement said.
It demanded an investigation of what it alleged was the failure of the interior ministry and the security forces to ensure safety and security during the match in which Port Said defeated Al Ahli 3:1 as well as “the cleansing of the ministry of interior and a full reconstruction of its system.”
The ultras further demanded that authorities drop references to involvement of a “third” party in the incident, a reference to the military’s attempt to position the Port Said incident as part of a foreign conspiracy to destabilize post-revolt Egypt. The ultras said they would not “accept the outcome of an investigation that blamed an anonymous (group for an incident) that wasted the lives of the martyrs.” They demanded the immediate arrest of the culprits whom they said were known to authorities “so as not to put us in the position of taking the right (into our own hands).”
While the Ultras Ahlawy charge that security forces failed to intervene in the lethal attack on their members and accuse thugs hired by the government of instigating the incident they also appeared to agree with the parliamentary inquiry’s conclusion that television footage documents the involvement of Al Masri fans in the attack on them. Ultras Ahlawy believes it was targeted because of its key role alongside other ultras groups in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak and its opposition since then to military rule.
Leaders of the ultras suggested that the incident was intended to exploit waning public support for the ultras, which were revered for their fearlessness, years of confrontation with security forces in the stadiums, role in manning defending Tahrir Square during the anti-Mubarak protests last year and militant support of their clubs. Their militancy and contentious street politics is however increasingly out of step with the mood in a country that is protest weary, retains confidence in the military despite its brutality, is frustrated that its revolt has not produced immediate tangible economic fruits and yearns for a return to normalcy so that Egypt can recover economically.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Thabet said in parliament Sunday that the Port Said incident had been sparked in part by incitement on sports TV channels. Disclosing details of the inquiry, he charged that thugs and hard core soccer fans had taken "advantage of the tension surrounding the game to achieve some political gains," but gave no details. Mr. Thabet promised to release the names of the instigators a later stage. He said 12,000 tickets had been sold for the match but 18,000 spectators had been admitted to the stadium.
Mr. Thabet said fans were not inspected while entering the stands and there was a lack of order inside and outside the stadium. "Security facilitated, allowed and enabled this massacre," he said, adding that security forces ignored mounting tension in advance of the Al Masri-Al Ahli match. "Both ultras and thugs attacked Ahly fans and this is part of Ultras' culture," he said.
Mr. Thabet acknowledged that similar pitch invasions had occurred in Port Said in the past year. Like in stadiums elsewhere in Egypt, security was often lax and security forces where more interested in avoiding clashes with fans in a bid to shore up their tarnished image as the Mubarak regime’s henchmen than in ensuring security. The Port Said incident has sparked suspicion that more than just laxness was involved because stadium exits that were normally open had been locked and because security forces refused to intervene despite the fact that the brawl had turned lethal.
The parliamentary inquiry also took the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to task for violating world governing body FIFA’s security standards that call for monitoring by a security official of the security and political situation before, during and after a match.
The charge cast a further shadow over FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s demand for the reinstitution of the EFA board that was last week dismissed by the government in the wake of the Port Said incident. Mr. Blatter’s charge that the dismissal constituted political interference rings hallow given that the board consists of Mubarak appointees who furthered the ousted president’s efforts to control and manipulate the game to his political benefit. It also rings hallow given the fact that despite a nominal 2013 FIFA deadline for a restructuring of Egyptian soccer FIFA essentially tolerated the fact that the vast majority of Egyptian premier league clubs fail to meet the soccer body’s criteria for league membership.
FIFA sources said the Mr. Blatter’s demand was part of a flawed communications strategy designed to position the FIFA president as a leader and defender of soccer in a bid to repair the reputational damage he suffered as a result of a series of scandals in the last year that have rocked the soccer body and tarnished its image and that of its president. One source described the strategy as dating from the 1930s.
The sources said FIFA’s announcement that it was donating $250,000 to the families of those who died in Port Said was part of Mr. Blatter’s strategy. They noted that it was being handled personally by the FIFA president rather than the soccer body’s emergency committee and doubted that there was a mechanism to distribute the funds. In a separate move, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) which is headed by a controversial Blatter ally, Issa Hatou, said it was donating $150,000.
In the first regional fallout of the Port Said incident, Tunisia’s interior ministry ordered that all league matches be played behind closed doors because of concern about deteriorating security. Le Presse sports editor Sami Akrimi said the decision stemmed from the failure of the Tunisian soccer body to work with fan groups to ensure security.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.