At least 74 dead after Egypt soccer match

February 1, 2012

Clashes between rival soccer fans in the Egyptian city of Port Said killed at least 74 people Wednesday night, the deadliest incident since the country’s autocratic president was ousted a year ago.

The bloodshed brought into sharp focus how much security has deteriorated over the past year as the revolt and its continuing ripples have chipped away at the pillars of the police state that made Egypt an exceptionally safe nation in recent decades.

The clashes represent one of the biggest crises the country’s interim military leaders have faced since they took power a year ago and will probably shape the debate among newly elected members of parliament about the country’s controversial emergency law, which gives security officials vast powers.

“How come there’s a match in Port Said and there’s known tension between the two teams’ fans and there are 12,000 spectators in the stadium and, yet, there is no security,” parliament member Mohammad Abu Hamed said on state TV.

Many in the Islamist-dominated parliament favor the repeal of the emergency law, which has long been used to persecute government critics and Islamists. Egypt’s military rulers have been reluctant to abolish it, saying the country must be stabilized first. Last month, the generals lifted the law in part, although critics charged that their move still leaves wide latitude to apply the measure.

Clashes broke out at the stadium in Port Said at the conclusion of a match between regional teams, the hometown Al-Masry and Cairo’s Al-Ahly, according to news reports and witnesses.

Witnesses said that shortly after the local team won, 3-1, fans of the other team streamed onto the field. Rival fans used sharp objects, rocks and metal pipes against each other, according to witness accounts and television footage. In addition to those killed, more than 200 were injured, state television reported, citing the Egyptian Health Ministry.

Star Al-Ahly player Mohammad Abu Treika told the team’s television station that the national league tournament should be suspended indefinitely in light of the evening’s bloodshed.

“Crowds are dying in front of us, and there aren’t any police or security forces,” he said. “Football can go to hell if this is the situation.”

Television footage appeared to show security forces staying on the sidelines as the brawl intensified. The country’s police and army have, in recent months, been accused of using excessive force against civilians and failing to step in to stop unrest.

Egypt’s ardent soccer fans, known as “ultras,” have become strong and volatile participants in protests this year. Their presence at demonstrations outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last year was cited as one of the main reasons the gatherings turned violent.

Sherif Ikrami, a goalkeeper for Al-Ahly, told a private television station that he felt powerless as hundreds of fans pounced on him and his teammates.

“I’m one of the players who has marks of the fight on his face,” he said, looking distraught. “It was a massacre. We’re not playing soccer again! What soccer are we going to play after 70 people died? What soccer?”

Critics of the ruling military council took it to task for the violence, suggesting that the episode and other recent violent acts might have been orchestrated to justify the need to rule with an iron fist.

“Since when do innocent Egyptians get slaughtered in cold blood in Port Said?” Hamdeen Sabbahy, a presidential candidate, said in an interview broadcast on a private television channel. He added that state agents likely orchestrated the brawl to punish soccer fans for the role they have played during the revolution. “This is a dangerous phase, when Egypt loses 73 martyrs in a few hours.”

Al-Masry’s chief executive resigned shortly after the fight, saying carnage of that magnitude couldn’t have erupted spontaneously. “There are so many hands playing with our country so we can remain in the state of chaos and instability we are living now,” he said in a televised interview shortly after stepping down.

Military leaders deployed air force aircraft to transport the wounded to hospitals. The country’s new parliament will hold an emergency hearing on the brawl Thursday, members said.

Hassieb is a special correspondent.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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