Egypt’s tragedy: This is not just soccer violence

74 people dead. It doesn’t add up. Port Said’s Masry soccer team won 3-1 against its long-time rival Ahly. In Port Said. It was a tough victory, one that Masry won with the support of its fans. The logical question would be, then, "Why would the Masry fans attack the minority of Ahly fans among ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

74 people dead.

It doesn’t add up. Port Said’s Masry soccer team won 3-1 against its long-time rival Ahly. In Port Said. It was a tough victory, one that Masry won with the support of its fans. The logical question would be, then, "Why would the Masry fans attack the minority of Ahly fans among them?"

From there on, the questions just don’t stop. "Why did neither the governor of Port Said nor its security chief attend a game they both normally attend?" asked parliamentarian Mohamed Abou Hamed on live television earlier tonight. "Why were security forces barely present despite knowing that the long rivalry between the two teams had a potential for violence?"

It’s true that the team rivalry is old, and that the most dedicated fans — the Ultras, as they are known in Egypt — don’t shy from confrontation. Years ago, for instance, Ahly fans once broke into the Masry club and stole some of their trophies.

I say all this because many of the first media reports ended with a variation of the statement "soccer in Egypt has a high potential of violence." Only it doesn’t. There has been the occasional violent incident, but even championship games normally end without a hiccup, or else with the most hot-headed supporters exchanging insults or, at worst, throwing things at each other. I’m not trying to defend any of that behavior, of course. But my point is — they don’t kill 74 people. Again, something just doesn’t add up.

Especially when you learn that the Ultras, those organized and ultra-motivated fans, had proved since January 25 that they were the stuff revolutions were made of. The mostly Cairo-based Ahly Ultras teamed up with their counterparts from their main crosstown rivals — Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights — and, well, gave Mubarak’s goons hell. Their presence — with the moral support they provided through their loud, sometimes funny and occasionally obscene anti-government chants, but also their courage when it came to fending off violent policemen — could make or break a protest.

It is those same police goons who were supposed to guarantee order in the stadium tonight. (It should be noted that there has been absolutely no reform of the police since the revolution.)

Like I said. Something really doesn’t add up.

The immediate flow of information proved it. Normally the stadium managers carefully control how the teams and the visiting fans are let out. This time, though, the gates were opened immediately after the game ended, and supporters were also allowed to invade the pitch — something that almost never happens. The very scarce policemen who were present did not attempt to break up the fights.

74 dead. That’s 74 families that will not sleep tonight. Or the night after that. That’s 74 bodies on a morgue table. Some, the autopsy will reveal, were trampled or died of asphyxiation. Others — those with injuries to the face or chest or elsewhere — will probably have "fatal trauma," that horribly vague phrase, printed on their death certificates. Assuming, of course, that the death certificates are issued properly. As I write this, I’m getting reports that some bodies have been taken to a state hospital amid fears that the doctors may be pressured by the police to alter their report. (That has certainly happened before in Cairo.) Most of the dead, again from what we gather from witness accounts, were Ahly fans, some of them Ultras. Many were also Port-Saidis who took the former’s defense. One policeman also lost his life.

And Egypt is on fire, but through the tears one can still see clearly.

On the streets and on the web, blame is put squarely on the police. Once again it failed miserably, as it has for the past year. Blame is also being put on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the SCAF, as the head of the executive branch.

Now thousands of people — many Ahly Ultras but not only them — are marching to the Cairo police station, awaiting the train carrying team supporters and the bodies of those who were killed. And, just as they always do, in joy or adversity, they are chanting. Against SCAF, against the Ministry of Interior, against the sluggish SCAF-appointed prime minister who (as someone quipped on Twitter) is probably still looking for his slippers so that he can get out of bed and go see what the fuss is about. We’re not out of the woods yet. Risks of retaliation against Port Saidis are limited but real. Images of queues, until midnight, of the Port Saidis lining up in front of hospitals to donate blood for the injured have been heartwarming, and the resignation of the board of the Masry team was the honorable thing to do. Nevertheless, anti-Port Said chants have been heard in Cairo, and tension needs to be monitored and observed.

Parliamentarians have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the security failure. Another MP, Ziad El Elaimy, said that a mistake of these proportions could only be deliberate. In this he shares the opinion of many Egyptians who believe that the security shortcoming was intended, and that the police, with SCAF’s blessing, had sent saboteurs into the midst of the fans to teach the Ahly Ultras a lesson.

The head of the military junta, field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, opted to put the blame on unidentified "citizens." Even more importantly, he seemed to be asking people to take the law into their own hands, declaring that, "we hope that all the Egyptian people will come together… Those who committed those acts are Egyptian citizens, aren’t they? How come Egyptians are allowing them to remain, are not stopping them?"

"Them" invariably refers to "activists." "Them." This wouldn’t be the first time that the army has exhorted people to do its bidding. Back in October, during the infamous Maspero protest that left 24 people dead, state television asked "honorable citizens" to "go out and defend the army" against protesters.

Tomorrow will be a defining day. First there’s the young parliament. If it takes a forceful stand and demands accountability from the executive branch, from the Port Said police all the way up to Tantawi, it will indeed prove itself to be the "Revolution’s Parliament." But there’s the chance that the Ministry of the Interior will get its way by managing to push through a new emergency law that would give it sweeping powers under the guise of "battling chaos." (It made a case along precisely these lines to Parliament last week.)

Then there is the possibility of fresh street protests. A demonstration is planned for tomorrow that will leave Ahly and head to the Ministry of Interior. The symbolism is enormous, needless to say — and it is only compounded by the fact that tomorrow, February 2, is the anniversary of last year’s "Battle of the Camels." That was when government-paid, police-armed, army-approved thugs attacked the protesters in Tahrir square on horse- and camelback in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the 2011 revolution.

A little while ago a train from Port Said arrived at Cairo station. The live reports are heartbreaking. Boys are looking for their friends. Families are calling for their children. Mothers are crying as they realize they might never see their kids again.

How much hope can Egyptians dare to have?

In the meantime, Egypt has declared three days of national mourning. The revolution continues, one day at a time.

M ohamed El Dahshan is the founder of OXCON, a consulting firm focusing on fragile and post-conflict countries; he is also a non-resident Fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in DC, and cofounder of Afrilanthropy, a philanthropic advisory firm.