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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Egyptian prosecutor submits new evidence in bid to preempt violent soccer protests


Ultras prepare for Port Said verdict (Source Mohamed Hossam Eddin/Egypt Independent)

By James M. Dorsey

Egypt’s public prosecutor has submitted new evidence in the case against 73 people accused of responsibility for the death a year ago of 72 soccer fans in a politically loaded brawl in a bid to delay a verdict scheduled for January 26 that is certain to spark violent protests.

Hassan Yassin, the prosecutor’s spokesman, did not disclose what new evidence had emerged and it was not immediately clear whether the court would accept it. Equally unclear is whether militant, highly-politicized, violence-prone and street battle-hardened soccer fans or ultras would be pacified by the prosecutor’s move.

The verdict in the case that involves among others nine mid-level security is scheduled to be announced a day after the second anniversary of the eruption of mass protests that forced president Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.

The verdict is certain to provoke protests by soccer fans irrespective of what the court rules. Renewed eruption of street violence could thwart efforts by the government and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to lift the year-old suspension of Egyptian soccer in the first week of February.

The suspension was imposed in February of last year after the 72 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC died in a brawl at the end of a match against Al Masri SC in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. The incident, the worst in Egyptian sporting history, was widely seen as an effort that got out of hand to cut the ultras down to size.

Egypt’s various ultras groups, one of the country’s largest civic groups after the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, played a key role in the toppling of Mubarak, opposition to the subsequent military rulers who led Egypt to elections that were won by the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, and resistance to Mr. Morsi’s recent rushing through of a controversial constitution.

Ultras Ahlawy, the Cairo club’s militant fan group, has vowed to prevent the resumption of professional soccer as long as justice has not been served in the Port Said case. The ultras have in recent months occupied the head office of the EFA on several occasions, stormed the Al Ahli training ground, forced the freezing of assets and imposition of a travel ban on Al Ahli chairman Hassan Hamdi by the Illegal Gains Authority on charges of corruption and attacked the premises of media organizations they deemed hostile.

During a mass demonstration last Friday on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Al Ahli ultras shouted “Retribution against the leaders of the interior ministry and the military who masterminded the (Port Said) plot is easy. Death is coming for both.”

Al Ahli ultras demonstrated this week in Alexandria and Suez demanding revenge for the Port Said victims. "We are giving the authorities a final warning. We know what to do if the trial is manipulated," Egypt Independent quoted protest leader Mohamed Ali as saying.

Supporters of Al Ahli arch rival, Al Zamalek SC, protested separately in Alexandria against the arrest of one of their members, 14-year old Omar Hisham. Mr. Hisham was detained this weekend during demonstration in front of the Alexandria court house against the decision of judges to resign a day before pronouncing verdict against police officers charged with killing protesters during the anti-Mubarak protests two years ago.

Similar protests were also organized Monday evening in front of the Suez Governorate headquarters, after dozens of Ultras marched the streets of the city. They demanded revenge for the Port Said martyrs. Security forces intensified their presence around the building.

The risk of violence is enhanced by the fact that even if the Cairo court rules in favor of Al Ahli, the verdict is unlikely to meet conditions the fans have set for a resumption of Egyptian soccer. The ultras have demanded in addition to serving justice that the police and security forces, their nemesis and the most despised institutions in Egypt because of their role in enforcing the repression of the Mubarak government, be exempted from responsibility for security in stadiums; the police and security forces be thoroughly reformed; Mubarak era officials be removed from soccer boards and an end to corruption in the sport.

The fans are also unhappy with the conditions on which the EFA earlier this month agreed with the ministers of interior and sport to resume professional soccer in February. In particular, the fans reject the exclusion of the public from initial matches at the behest of the interior ministry which is in charge of the police and security forces. The ministry insisted that fans be excluded because it fears that clashes with the militants would further tarnish the image of the police and the security forces.

Port Said has twice this month had a foretaste of expected violence in the wake of a court ruling. Thousands of Al-Masri fans besieged the Port Said stadium this week in protest of authorities' plans to transfer the defendants to Cairo for the verdict. In response, authorities backed down and announced that the suspects would not be present in the court when it announces its verdict. Clashes erupted earlier this month in Port Said between supporters of Al Masri and Al Ahli in which 55 people were wounded. 

The head of Port Said’s Lawyers Syndicate, Safwat Abdel Halim, said the union had requested security for 46 lawyers representing the defendants in the Port Said case because they had been threatened by Al Ahli militants.

“We have written our wills and will fight for the rights of our comrades," said a member of Al Masri supporters, Ultras Green Eagles.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

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