Port Said unites key Egyptian gov’t critics: Workers and fans

Port Said unites key Egyptian gov’t critics: Workers and fans

James M. DORSEY Hürriyet Daily News
Port Said unites key Egyptian gov’t critics: Workers and fans

In this file photo from Jan 26, Al-Ahly fans, also known as ‘Ultras,’ celebrate and shout slogans inside the club’s training stadium in Cairo after hearing the final verdict of the 2012 Port Said massacre. REUTERS photo

Egyptian troops were protecting factories and government offices on the sixth 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 President Hosni Mubarak: militant, highly politicized, street-battled hardened football fans and the labor movement.

Operating independently, both groups constituted key centers of resistance to the repression of 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 Mubarak’s economic liberalization policy and corrupt and nepotistic privatization of state-owned assets.

However, 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 they continued to be a convenient scapegoat even under the country’s first democratically elected president to bring fans and workers together. In doing so, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has failed where Mubarak succeeded: keeping powerful critics divided. Some 20,000 workers have joined the protests and general strike in Port Said, according to Egypt’s state-owned Middle East News Agency.

Morsi faces challenge to his authority

As a result, 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, which were focal points of anti-government demonstrations. That defiance is likely to be fuelled in the coming 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 football club as well nine mid-level police and security officials accused of responsibility for the death a year ago of 74 supporters of Cairo giant Al-Ahly SC in a politically loaded brawl.

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 from Mubarak’s fall to the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory. His failure to initiate crucial, albeit difficult, reforms 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 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.

The deep-seated animosity toward 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 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.

Egypt yet to halt economic slide

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 Morsi fails to initiate reforms of the police and security forces. 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.

Militant football 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, 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-Ahly 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 Jan. 26 protests commemorating the second anniversary of the Jan. 25 Revolution.”