Was Egypt's football violence political?

The death of 74 football fans in Egypt is a worrying sign of the country's deteriorating security si

 

"This is not football, this is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances," declared Mohamed Abutreika, a football player for Egypt's Al-Ahly team. He was speaking in the aftermath of football riots in the northern city of Port Said which left 74 fans dead and hundreds injured.

The violence broke out after Cairo club Al-Ahly lost 3-1 to local team Al-Masry. Fans stormed the pitch. Television footage showed players being chased and attacked by fans. Most deaths were caused by the stampede. Clearly, the scale of the violence means that this goes beyond football: parliament have called an emergency session to discuss the lack of security at the match. But what exactly does it say about Egypt's current political situation?

One theory is that the military and the police were actually complicit in the violence. Essam el-Erian, a politician from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, alleged that the military wants to show that emergency regulations giving security forces wide-ranging powers must be maintained. The longstanding law was recently abolished, and the interior minister Mohamed Yusuf has recently spoken about the need to keep the extraordinary powers it provides to handle crime.

El-Erian was unequivocal: "This tragedy is a result of intentional reluctance by the military and the police." While it is difficult to say whether it was a deliberate policy, it was plainly evident that riot police did little to prevent the situation. Some clips show a small group of police attempting to protect the players, although they appear to be overwhelmed. Others show riot police standing by as fans storm the pitch.

What this shows without any doubt is the political and security vacuum in which Egypt finds itself after the revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak nearly a year ago. The military continue to hold sway, and a smooth transition of power to civilian rule has not been secured. Fans were heard chanting "down with military rule" as the violence broke out.

Al-Jazeera's correspondent reports:

There were clearly riot police on that pitch, but they were seen either not getting involved or running in the other direction.

Some people say the police force perhaps has not been trained to deal with violence, except in the way they were trained during Mubarak, which was with sheer and brutal force. And now when they can't do that, they're unable to deal with violence.

Football violence happens all over the world (although this is the worst instance worldwide since 1996), but this raises serious questions about the ability of Egypt's state police to deal with crowds and emergencies. It comes off the back of high profile incidents of crime, such as the robbing of a bank in broad daylight. As angry fans amass in Cairo to march on the interior ministry to protest against the major lapse of security, it is clear that we have not seen the last of this.

UPDATE 12.15pm: The entire board of Egypt's football board has been sacked and some members placed under investigation.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.