Deaths outside a Cairo soccer stadium are par for the course with Egypt's unreformed and unrepentant police force.
- By Max SiegelbaumMax Siegelbaum is a journalist and producer based in Cairo, Egypt.
CAIRO — Mahmoud Sayed, a 20-year-old soccer hooligan from the working-class Cairo district of Matariya, was shoving through a mass of people trying to make their way into Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium on Sunday evening, Feb. 8, for a match between his favorite team, Zamalek, and ENPPI, a rival. As the crowd shuffled toward the stadium’s gates, a young man ahead of Sayed suddenly stopped, took out an unlit road flare, and waved it above his head, signaling for the crowd to turn back. Suddenly, Sayed heard the familiar pop of tear gas canisters. “As soon as he put up his hand, they started shooting tear gas like crazy,” Sayed said.
The match was to be one of the first that fans were allowed to attend since a riot at a soccer stadium in Port Said in 2012 left at least 72 people dead. To control the crowd, police had installed a metal cage to funnel fans into the stadium. It was far too small for the massive group.
According to Egypt’s Interior Ministry, the police began firing the tear gas when a group of ticketless fans tried to enter the stadium. For many of those trapped in the cage it was a death sentence. The crowd rushed to escape the tear gas and bird shot. People fell; in the panic, others climbed over their bodies, crushing them. According to researchers at the Egyptian Council for Rights and Freedoms who were present at Cairo’s main morgue and the Al Ahli Bank Hospital on Sunday night, between 20 and 30 people died in the rush. Some were trampled to death, others asphyxiated.
A gruesome video posted to YouTube shows sneakers, clothing, and the bodies of young men strewn on the ground outside the stadium in north Cairo. “We had lots of kids with us, young guys, most of the people around me were between 12 and 24 years old,” Sayed said.
The disaster outside the Air Defense Stadium is only the most recent in a sequence of increasingly violent and reckless acts committed by the Egyptian police force against the Egyptian public. In the past year, Egyptian police officers have been accused of everything from petty corruption to murder and rape. The stated goals of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution included reforming the Ministry of Interior and reconstructing Egypt’s corrupt national police force. Since 2011, not a single police officer has been jailed; prosecutions of any sort are exceedingly rare.
“The police are so reckless that they don’t mind shooting tear gas into a crowd of 10,000 and whatever happens they don’t care, so that’s what they did,” says Mohamed Lofty, executive director of the Egyptian Council for Rights and Freedoms. “They don’t see those people as something of any value and it’s exactly fine to kill them and not get prosecuted or tried.”
It feels like little has changed since Feb. 1, 2012, when a heated match between Port Said’s Al Masry team and Cairo’s Al Ahly turned into a deadly brawl as Al Masry’s fans charged the field and attacked the other side of the stadium. Rather than intervening, police officers stood by as the fans fought on the field and in the stands. The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, drew criticism at the time from the Egyptian public and was even accused of orchestrating the riot as revenge for the crucial role that soccer hooligans, known as Ultras, played in the street fighting of the 2011 uprising.
Soccer fans aren’t the most common recipients of the Egyptian police’s wrath. In the most brutal incident, on Aug. 14, 2013, Egypt’s police set a new precedent for political violence when they descended on an Islamist-led sit in at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque, led by supporters of the then recently ousted president, Mohammed Morsi. According to Human Rights Watch, Egyptian security forces killed more than 800 people. Since then, major protest marches and small gatherings alike are almost always immediately met with violent riot-control tactics.
On Jan. 24 of this year, the eve of the four-year anniversary of the start of the 2011 uprising, police shot and killed Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, a 31-year-old poet, activist, mother, and member of the Revolutionary Socialist party. She had traveled from Alexandria to place a wreath of flowers in the shape of a peace sign in Tahrir Square. She was killed when police conscripts haphazardly fired tear gas and bird shot into the small crowd of activists. A day earlier, Sondos Rida Abu Bakr, 17, was shot to death during a protest in Alexandria organized by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.
“[Police] policy guidelines are missing any concept of proportionality or necessity in the deployment and use of force. Quite often you’ll see that there’s an immediate escalation to the highest level of force,” says Karim Medhat Ennarah, a researcher on police reform at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based think tank and advocacy organization.
Egypt has compulsory military service for men starting at age 18. Educated Egyptians usually spend their service years working at the army’s national projects, officers’ retreats, or army-owned hotels or factories. But many of the country’s poor and uneducated rural population are drafted for the Central Security Forces, the front line domestic troops who battle protestors and guard government buildings. There are more than 300,000 of these conscripts, according to Ennarah. Unlike police officers, they receive little education in law enforcement. “Obviously it goes without saying they’re very poorly trained, which is evident in how we’ve seen them respond to any security situation,” Ennarah says.
In the years since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted following mass protests, the government has established several fact-finding committees to investigate political violence. One committee in 2013 was charged by then-President Mohammed Morsi with investigating the role of four of Hosni Mubarak’s Interior Ministry assistants in killing protesters. The report never saw the light of day. Another, under current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was tasked with investigating the Rabaa massacre; it accused protestors of provoking the police. Needless to say, these government-appointed commissions produced little results in the way of justice for the families of Egypt’s detainees or those killed by security forces.
And justice is no more quickly served in cases where police are accused of crimes other than killing protesters, either. In December 2014, for example, two low-ranking police officers detained a young woman in Cairo’s working class Shubra district. Later, they allegedly raped her in the back of a patrol car. On Jan. 10, the officers were referred to court and released on bail for roughly $140 dollars each shortly after, a stark contrast with political cases where detainees are often held for months pending trial. The next day, forensic scientists matched semen found on the young woman’s underwear to DNA from both officers. A court date has not yet been set.
On Feb. 1, a police officer shot and killed an injured prisoner in a hospital in Cairo. The man had been arrested attempting to place a bomb in Cairo’s Al Warraq neighborhood, according to the Ministry of Interior, and had been hospitalized to treat several injuries he sustained in the process. The officer and the patient began arguing. The argument ended with the prisoner being shot to death. The police officer remains free.
When morgues and hospitals become packed with bodies after police crack down on protests and rallies, officials will often only allow families to retrieve victims’ bodies if they agree to sign off on false or unclear autopsy reports. Without official evidence, Lofty explained, it is nearly impossible for prosecutors to pin down crimes on police officers.
“The judiciary is covering up for the police and its actions they’re not doing proper investigations” Lofty said, “They are not collecting the evidence correctly, the police isn’t itself collecting data or evidence that would incriminate the police.”
The latest horrific deaths in Cairo seem like they will likely fit the familiar Egyptian pattern of impunity. The prosecutor’s office has ordered an investigation into the disaster at the Air Defense stadium. But the general prosecutor also placed the blame on soccer fans for attempting to enter the stadium without tickets. Security forces, he said, had to prevent the fans from damaging public property. Media personalities, including Mortada Mansour, a TV presenter who is also the president of the Zamalek Soccer Club, blamed the Ultras for the deaths and even suggested the Muslim Brotherhood might be involved in the disaster. On their Facebook page, the Zamalek Ultras claim that families of those killed outside the stadium were forced to sign papers that said the cause of death was the stampede — rather than suffocation from the police’s tear gas.
But Sayed and other soccer fans who were there place the blame firmly on the police. “If police really had only good intentions and wanted to manage the situation, they could have just shot in the air,” Sayed said.
“I would have never thought that something like this would happen again after Port Said,” he said. “Youth are not allowed to participate in protests anymore and join demonstrations in the streets, so I thought they would at least allow us to stay in the stadium and watch football.”
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