Port Said unites key Egyptian government critics: workers and soccer fans

(Source: Fox News)

By James M. Dorsey

Military troops are protecting factories and government offices on the fifth day of a general strike in the Suez Canal city of Port Said that has brought together two groups with working class roots that played key roles in the toppling of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak: militant, highly politicized, street-battled hardened soccer fans and the labor movement.

Operating independently both groups constituted key centers of resistance to the repression of Mr. Mubarak’s regime during the years that preceded his downfall. The fans fought police and security forces in the stadiums in a battle for control of one of the country’s most crucial public spaces while workers in industrial towns like Mahalla organized strikes against Mr. Mubarak’s economic liberalization policy and corrupt and nepotistic privatization of state-owned assets.

Yet, it took perceptions of a majority of the population of Port Said, a city of 600,000 historically on the frontline of Egypt’s many past confrontations with Israel but nevertheless economically neglected, that even under the country’s first democratically elected president they continued to be a convenient scapegoat, to bring fans and workers together. In doing so, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has failed where Mr. Mubarak succeeded: keeping powerful critics divided. Some 20,000 workers have joined the protests and a five-day old general strike in Port Said, according to Egypt’s state-owned Middle East News Agency.

As a result, Mr. Morsi faces a serious challenge to his authority with protesters and strikers ignoring his declaration of emergency rule in the city and two other towns along the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, Suez and Ismailia that were focal points of anti-government demonstration. That defiance is likely to be fuelled in coming in weeks as Egypt anticipates a second round of verdicts on March 9 in the trial against 52 defendants who include officials of Port Said’s Al Masri soccer club as well nine mid-level police and security officials accused of responsibility for the death a year ago of 74 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC in a politically loaded brawl.

Mr. Morsi’s predicament is his own making even if he inherited the explosive political baggage embedded in the Port Said trial from the military that led Egypt’s from Mr. Mubarak fall to the Muslim Brother’s electoral victory. His failure to initiate crucial albeit difficult reform of the overriding symbol of the Mubarak regime’s repression, the police and security forces, is compounded by the fact that they remain a power onto themselves able to continue their Mubarak era practices of hard-handed management of public protests, arbitrary arrests and torture.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that police and security officials have yet to be held accountable for the deaths of more than 800 protesters since demonstrations against Mr. Mubarak first erupted in January 2011. 

Public anger has been further fuelled by the fact that none of the security and police officials in the Port Said trial were among the first batch of those convicted despite a prosecutor’s report that put equal blame on law enforcement and Al Masri fans as well as the fact that 32 protesters were killed in Port Said during protests on the day that the court announced the death sentences against the Al Masri supporters.

Mr. Morsi’s attempt this week to counter Port Said’s sense of being ignored with proposed legislation to reopen a lucrative free trade zone in the city and allocate some $60 million to economic development in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia was rejected by protesters as too little too late. The protesters say they are steadfast in their demand for justice for the protesters who were killed.

The deep-seated animosity towards the police and security forces is rooted in years of confrontation with fans in the stadiums in what amounted to a battle of control for public space and in factories where workers asserted their rights as well as in the fact that police and security officials were the ones that made life difficult in popular neighborhoods of Egyptian cities. The resulting popular anger may well have boiled over in Port Said on the day of the sentencing of the Al Masri fans with witnesses reporting that two policemen were the first to die on the city’s streets.

That notwithstanding, calm badly needed to halt Egypt’s economic slide and return it to economic growth, is unlikely to be restored as long as Mr. Morsi fails to initiate reform of the police and security forces, a major bastion of the former regime. The president’s failure to do so is compounded by his haughty style of government and his failure to consult opposition forces on controversial moves such as the rushing through of a constitution perceived by many as strengthening the hand of Islamists and potentially curbing fundamental freedoms.

The bringing together of workers and fans in a consorted protest against the Morsi government that has all but paralyzed Port Said heightens the risk that traffic through the Suez Canal, a major source of badly needed revenue for the government, could ultimately be affected. The protests have already prompted the evacuation of the Suez Canal authority’s headquarters as well as the closure of more than 20 factories that are now guarded by the military as fans, workers and government employees demand Mr. Morsi’s resignation. Protesters this week temporarily blocked the road leading to the entrance of the Canal. They were joined by workers of the Canal’s container terminal.

Militant soccer fans first reached out to the workers’ movement during protests a year ago in the wake of the Port Said brawl by acknowledging in a song that workers were among those who lost their lives in Egypt’s popular revolt. It never went however beyond the symbolic stretching out of a hand.

Port Said may well constitute the basis for real cooperation rather than symbolism. If so, Mr. Morsi will have not only paved the way for the emergence of an activist coalition that has got its feet wet not in using a computer to employ social media but in hard fought battles in which they have proven themselves as formidable, fearless opponents, but will have also further complicated his efforts to restore calm and open the door to economic development without embarking on real political, social and economic reform.

Said a leader of Ultras Ahlawy, the militant Al Ahli support group, in an interview with Egypt’s Al Ahram newspaper: "Our fight for justice is ongoing and will escalate until all members of the police or military who abused the Ultras are put on trial. We will not give up our rights that easily. We will escalate if needed, as was seen in our 26 January protests commemorating the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution."

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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