Egypt soccer riots leave scores dead, FIFA demands explanation

February 2, 2012

The Egyptian parliament is taking up an investigation of the deadly riots after a soccer game between Cairo club Al-Ahly and Port Said’s Al-Masry. As Ernesto Londono and Ingy Hassieb reported:

Egypt’s parliament on Thursday vowed to investigate the previous night’s melee after a soccer game in Port Said city that left at least 74 people dead.

Many Egyptians blamed the security forces for not doing enough to protect dueling crowds of fans, and some suggested that internal and foreign agents may have instigated the bloodshed as party of a scheme to sow mayhem across the country.

“It was planned and deliberate,” said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group whose political party holds the most seats in the new parliament. “It’s unbelievable and unjustifiable.”

Ardent soccer fans, known here as “ultras,” poured into Tahrir Square on Thursday afternoon for one of a handful of protests planned to decry the violence.

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.

FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter decried the riots and called for a full investigation and answers from Egyptian officials. As AP explained:

Warning that soccer must not be “abused by those who mean evil,” the president of the sport’s governing body demanded detailed reasons from the Egyptian federation Thursday for the stadium riot that killed at least 74 people.

Sepp Blatter called for action to prevent a repeat of the post-match violence in a letter to the Egyptian Football Association, whose board was subsequently fired by the prime minister and its members referred for questioning by prosecutors.

The deadliest soccer stadium disaster since 1996 unfolded in the Mediterranean city of Port Said on Wednesday night following Al-Masry’s league match against Al-Ahly, with fans crushed to death while others were fatally stabbed or suffocated in a stampede.

During an emergency parliamentary session in Cairo on Thursday, several lawmakers said some police and military failed to intervene, allowing the riot to happen to stoke insecurity in Egypt since the fall of leader Hosni Mubarak a year ago. Al-Masry manager Kamal Abu Ali resigned after the match, contending it was a “plot to topple the state.”

“I fully understand the country’s shock and anger that such a disaster could have come to pass,” Blatter wrote to EFA President Samir Zaher on Thursday. “Today is a black today for football and we must take steps to ensure that such a catastrophe never happens again. Football is a force for good, and we must not allow it to be abused by those who mean evil.

Some noted that Al-Ahly’s Ultras were at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak protests the previous year as a possible reason for security forces to allow violence to occur. As Elizabeth Flock reported:

It wasn’t just post-match fighting that got out of hand.

Witnesses say security forces ignored, if not encouraged, the violence that broke out after an Egypt soccer match Wednesday, killing 74 people, the Washington Post’s Ernesto Londono and Ingy Hassieb report.

According to The Guardian, a number of suspicious details at the match support the theory: For one, the gates to the playing field were left open after the hometown team El-Masry won, and the police patrolling the area did not prevent fans from storming the field. The numbers of riot police at the match were far less than are usually present. Large numbers of weapons managed to get inside the stadium, despite not having been allowed in the past, and they appeared especially in the hands of El-Masry fans.

When fans of the losing team, Al-Ahly, tried to escape the violence, they found exit gates closed. Police are reported to have stood by as those fans were crushed, doing nothing to help. Footage of the riot shows the police idly standing by.

Many Egyptians are now pointing out that security forces have a reason to act out against the Al-Ahly team — or at least their fans.

Al-Ahly has a somewhat new fan base of Ultras, or fanatic sports fans. During the uprising against the Hosni Mubarak regime last year, Ultras were often at the forefront of the protests.

“It is difficult to avoid the impression that the chaos had been at least partly-engineered to teach a painful lesson to the Ultras - and by proxy the Egyptian liberals,” writes Martin Chulov in the Guardian.

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