The Beautiful Game and the Blame Game
Football violence horrifies Egypt
The tragedy in Egypt’s Port Said Stadium exposes the divisions still gripping the country a year after the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. With the death toll now close to 80, Egyptians are split on who is to blame for the deaths following a match between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly football teams on 1 February, which ended with a violent pitch invasion.
Revolutionary fervor is still running high, and all sides view the tragedy through the prism of their own take on the revolution and state of the nation. Amongst the young revolutionaries and leftists suspicion is widespread that the ruling military council orchestrated the violence and is seeking to use the chaos to clamp down on unrest in a bid to secure its hold on power. This reflects popular anger with Egypt’s current rulers, and thousands are expected to take to the streets and Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest at the handling of the situation by the security forces. Citizens of Port Said have already launched protest marches accusing the police and army of being behind the violence. The Muslim Brotherhood is somewhat more cautious but seems to agree. One of its MPs, Essam Al-Eriam told the BBC that the violence was planned in advance, and was a “message” from figures loyal to ousted president Hosni Mubarak, a manufactured crisis to undermine calls for the repeal of the country’s repressive emergency laws. The governor of Port Said and the chief of police did not attend the match, and some claim that the police were not present n their usual numbers and did not search the crowd for weapons, fuelling speculation that the violence was planned. Both have resigned their posts, as has the president of Al-Masry.
The head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, suggested a more mundane cause, blaming ordinary hooliganism for the violence. He told an Egyptian TV channel “These incidents happen anywhere in the world” and vowed that the perpetrators would be found and punished. The former president of Al-Masry football club, Kamel Abu Ali, claimed the violence was a plot to topple the state, and that “The police have to come back strongly, and we must let them do their job” in a TV interview.
It is impossible for observers to tell at present which side is correct, and it is also possible that the truth will never be fully known. Incompetence may be to blame. Tragedies like Haysel Stadium in Brussels in 1985 claimed 39 lives in the absence of revolutionary turmoil. The Hillsborough disaster in the English city of Sheffield killed almost 100 people in 1989, and the official enquiry concluded that the main cause was the failure of the police to control the situation in the stadium, and controversy still surrounds the incident and investigation. Even in a revolutionary situation, accidents happen. Egyptian football has an infamous reputation for violence amongst supporters, with a hardcore group of fans known as the ‘Ultras’ particularly feared. Some witnesses claim Egyptian police on the scene were outnumbered and failed to intervene decisively, either standing by or fleeing while the fans stormed the pitch. Some speculate that the police are demoralized and unsure of their role in the new Egypt, fearful of provoking unrest and unable to rely on the coercive tactics they were famous for in the past.
Unless the truth can be established openly and fully, and it is not clear that it ever will, each side will place the blame according to where they themselves stand.