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Egypt league to restart amid protests and finger pointing of police

Mass soccer protests

By James M. Dorsey

Egypt’s premier soccer league is scheduled to resume this weekend for the first time in a year amid concern about security against the backdrop of violent anti-government protests and the leaking of a court report that holds the police as well as fans responsible for last year’s death of 74 people in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

With matches initially scheduled to be played behind closed doors in military stadiums, security concerns are fuelled by the deaths of at least 60 people in anti-government protests in the last week, militant fan opposition to resumption of the league and the exclusion of spectators from the matches, and criticism of the Egyptian Football Association’s (EFA) failure to upgrade stadium security.

The leaking of a 200-page summary of the prosecution’s case obtained by McClatchy Newspapers in the trial against 73 defendants, including nine mid-level security officials, who are accused of responsibility for the death of 74 soccer fans in Port Said is certain to fuel demands by militant soccer fans that the league only be resumed once justice has been served.

The initial sentencing to death a week ago of 21 supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri Sports Club sparked violent protests in the city that left 32 people dead and some 300 wounded. The court, which did not publish the reasoning for its verdict, said it would announce its verdict in the case of the remaining 52 defendants, including the security officials, on March 9.

President Mohammed Morsi declared a 30-day emergency rule in Port Said and two other Suez Canal and Red Sea cities – Suez and Ismailia – and ordered the military to intervene to restore order.

The postponement of the sentencing of the security officials coupled with the leaked report reinforce perceptions that the government of Mr. Morsi like its military predecessor is reluctant to hold the country’s despised police and security force responsible for the deaths of more than 800 protesters since mass protests erupted two years ago, forcing President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.

Despite their arch rivalry, supporters of Al Masri and crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC, many of whom died in the Port Said brawl, the worst incident in Egyptian sports history, agree that the brawl at the end of a match between the two was planned rather than spontaneous.

The incident is widely seen as an attempt to punish militant, highly politicized, well organized and street battle-hardened soccer fans for their key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak and their opposition to the military government that succeeded him and paved the way for the election of Mr. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The leaked prosecutor’s report, according to McClatchy, asserts that the police as well as Al Masri fans were responsible for the deaths of the Al Ahli fans. In doing so it is likely to increase a sense in Port Said that it is being made a scapegoat despite the fact that Al Masri militants or ultras had also joined the protests that ended the Mubarak era.

It will also strengthen calls for reform of the police and security forces who were the repressive arm of the Mubarak regime and are since Mr. Mubarak’s fall a law unto themselves, according to a human rights report published last month.

The report said that police had failed to check fans entering the Port Said stadium for weapons on the day of the fatal match. It said that several Al Masri fans told investigators they’d noticed that one of the gates had been welded shut when they entered the stadium. They also thought it strange that no one was searching people for weapons.

Lax security fits the pattern of the time of police and security forces largely abstaining from enforcing security to avoid street confrontations in a bid to polish their bruised image and demonstrate that Egypt would sink into anarchy and chaos without them.

Similarly, police and security had failed to prepare for potential unrest last Saturday, the day of the sentencing of the Al Masri fans, despite predictions that the verdict was certain to spark violence in either Port Said or Cairo depending on which of the two cities’ militant soccer fans would be angry at the verdict.

More ominously in the case of Port Said, the prosecutor’s report said that the stadium’s gates had been sealed during the brawl, trapping fans, who either died pressed against the welded-closed entrances or who were hurled to their deaths from their upper deck seats. It said further that the stadium’s lights were turned off when the fighting began allegedly at the behest of an Al Masri leader.

The report contrasted lax security at the match with the fact that the animosity between Al Masri and Al Ahli had prompted police under Mr. Mubarak to escort fans from Cairo on their way in and out of Port Said and to search spectators before they entered the stadium to watch a match between the two.

The report – based on interviews with fans of both teams, reporters at the game, stadium lighting experts and police, as well as autopsy reports and videos – suggests that the Port Said brawl was planned at a meeting two days before the match of a support group called Super Green that was sanctioned by the club. The meeting was attended by some of the 21 fans sentenced to death, the report said. Militants or ultras frequently meet in advance of a match to plan their support for a team during a match.

It noted further that militants of both Al Masri and Al Ahli had issued threats on social media in advance of the fatal match. “Port Said is waiting for you with knives and pistols,” one of the messages read, according to the report. “If you are coming to Port Said, write your mother a will because you will die for sure,” read another.

The report said that the Super Green meeting was designed to plan an attack on Al Ahli fans. It said the meeting was headed Mohammed Adel Mohammed, a 21-year old ultra known by his nickname, Hummus. Hummus is among those now on death row and has become the symbol of the Port Said protests with calls for his release are painted on the exterior of Port Said’s stadium.

“Defendants premeditated the killing of some of the Ahly club fans (ultras) to retaliate for previous disputes between them and to show off their strength. For this purpose, they used weapons (knives and sticks) and explosive materials, such as flames, and rocks and other items to assault people,” the report said.

It said Al Masiy ultras began ambushing the Al Ahli team at its hotel even before the match with rocks and insults. The taunting continued at the stadium with several Al Masri fans changing their clothes and weapons throughout the day to make it harder to identify them in security video. Throughout, Port Said police “didn’t interfere in any way, which was seen on the videos,” the report said.

As the matched ended with an unexpected 3:1 Al Masri victory, Al Masri ultras, made their way toward the seating section reserved for al Ahli fans, it said. They threw Molotov cocktails and began attacking the al Ahli partisans with bricks and chairs.

“Al Mando was seen taking a blade from his mouth on video,” the report said, referring to an ultra by his nickname. Hummus admitted to investigators that he had thrown rocks at Al Ahly fans, the prosecution said. Others told the prosecution that they saw him also carrying Molotov cocktails, knives and sticks.

Hummus’ father, Adel Mohammed, asserted that his son had left the game before the stampede began and that his motives were innocent. He said Hummus’ confession had been coerced, according to McClatchy.

A police officer, known as Defendant 70, had the keys to all the gates but couldn’t be found when the stampede began, the report said, asserting that he offered different explanations for his disappearance. At one point, he said he didn’t unlock the gate at the request of Defendant 64, another officer. He told someone else the crowds were too big for him to confront. For his part, Defendant 64 said he never gave such orders and couldn’t find his fellow officer when the attack began, the report said.

“The prosecution found the keys with (Defendant 70) during the investigation. He said that he is the one who locked the doors, and he kept the keys with him until he handed them in to the prosecution. The prosecution made sure of that by trying the keys on the locks on Gates 2 and 3 and they opened the locks,” the report said.

This weekend’s resumption of soccer for the first time since the Port Said incident a year ago could hardly occur under less propitious circumstances. In addition to the prosecutor’s report putting the police even more in the firing line, analysts question whether security is sufficient to prevent a similar incident from happening again even though military stadiums are believed to be the most secure in Egypt.

The interior ministry, which controls the police and security forces, opposed the resumption of the league for much of the past year as long as a series of measures and upgrades in the stadiums had not been completed. Most of those recommendations have yet to be implemented by the EFA. “The haphazard attempts to resume the league, with or without fans, will lead to serious problems and maybe more victims,” sports critic Alaa Sadek told Al Ahram Online.

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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