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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.