“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.