Port Said clashes: A foretaste of Egyptian football violence to come

Port Said clashes: A foretaste of Egyptian football violence to come

James M. Dorsey Hürriyet Daily News
Port Said clashes: A foretaste of Egyptian football violence to come

Al-Ahly fans display pictures of 74 fans, who died in the Port Said incidents last year, Feb 2, 2012 riot before their African Champions League (CAF) final match against Tunisia’s Esperance Sportive. That was the first match Al-Ahly played before its home fans after the riot. More football violence might be on the way as a key court verdict is set to be announced and the league will restart in the coming weeks.

Clashes between rival football fans in Port Said, which left 55 people injured, gave Egypt a foretaste of the violence it can expect later this month when a Cairo court announces its verdict in the trial of 73 people charged with the deaths of 74 fans last year in a politically-loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city.

The verdict is expected Jan. 26 and will likely put the government of President Mohammed Morsi in a no-win situation as it struggles to re-launch Egypt’s professional football Feb. 1. The re-launch comes a year after 74 fans of crowned Cairo club, Al-Ahly SC died due to violence in the Port Said stadium after a match against the city’s Al-Masri SC.

The brawl was widely seen as an attempt to cut militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened fan groups, who played a key role in last year’s overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak, down to size. However, the incident quickly got out of hand. Many of these fans were known for their often violent rejection of military rule and current opposition to the Morsi government. Egypt’s militant fans or ultras constitute one of the country’s largest civic groups after Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Key court ruling

This weekend’s violence, in which rival groups threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, erupted when Al-Masri supporters clashed with pro-Al-Ahly students at a Port Said University hostel. The hostel had hoisted the Cairo club’s flag from their windows and balconies as well as the hostel’s roof, according to Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency (MENA). Four police officers were among the injured.
Al-Masri fans and nine mid-level security officers are among those now on trial in Cairo. Fans are certain to protest whatever the court decides. If all of the 73 accused, or even a substantial number of them, are sentenced, Al-Masri fans are certain to take to the streets. If, however, all or a substantial number of them are acquitted, Al-Ahly fans will protest vehemently.

Ultras Ahlawy, the Cairo club’s militant fan group, has vowed to prevent the resumption of professional football as long as justice has not been served in the case of the deaths of 74 people, most of whom were supporters of their group. The ultras have, in recent months, occupied the head office of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) on several occasions and stormed the Al-Ahly training ground. They’ve also forced the freezing of assets and imposed a travel ban on Al-Ahly Chairman Hassan Hamdi by the Illegal Gains Authority on charges of corruption. The premises’ of media organizations the group has deemed hostile have also been targets of attacks facilitated by the ultras.

The risk of violence is enhanced by the fact that even if the Cairo court rules in favor of Al-Ahly, the verdict is unlikely to meet the conditions fans have set for a resumption of Egyptian football. In addition to justice being served in the Port Said case, the ultras have demanded that the police and security forces be exempted from responsibility for security in stadiums. , Police and Security forces have long been the nemesis and most despised institution for ultras in Egypt due to their role in enforcing the repression of the Mubarak government. Other demands include that police and security forces be thoroughly reformed, Mubarak-era officials be removed from football boards and an end is brought to corruption in the sport.

Fans are also unhappy with the conditions the EFA agreed to earlier this month with the ministers of interior and sport to resume professional football Feb. 1. In particular, 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 clashes with militants would further tarnish the image of the police and security forces.

Battle for dignity

Much of the post-Mubarak violence stems from clashes between the militants and security forces. Their battle is a battle for karama or dignity. Their dignity is vested in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya or Interior Ministry with the knowledge that they can no longer be abused by security forces without recourse and the fact that they no longer have to pay off each and every policemen to stay out of trouble.

Reforming the police, however, is no easy task and is likely to prove far more difficult than Morsi’s taming of the military last summer by sidelining the country’s two most senior military commanders with the help of the next echelon of officers. Reform will have to mean changing from top to bottom the culture of a force that is larger than the military and counts 450,000 policemen and 350,000 members of the General Security and Central Security Forces as participants.