Soccer violence raises pressure on military


Fans trying to flee the fighting were crushed because the stadium gates were locked, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

EGYPTIAN POLITICAL parties yesterday demanded the newly elected parliament withdraw confidence in the government following the deaths of 74 soccer fans during clashes and a stampede after a premier league match on Wednesday between longstanding rivals Cairo’s al-Ahli and Port Said’s al-Masri.

The demand was made by El-Sayyed Badawi, head of the liberal Wafd party, on behalf of a range of parties across the political spectrum. They hold the ruling military council responsible for the carnage because it has failed to impose security in the country in the wake of the uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak nearly a year ago.

On January 28th last year, the police were pulled off the streets of Egypt’s cities and towns following a violent police crackdown on demonstrators calling for the fall of the Mubarak regime. The police, widely hated because of corruption and abuse, have not returned to duty in full force, leaving Egyptians vulnerable to criminals.

The internal security forces, which were supposed to be restructured and reformed following Mubarak’s fall, remain as abusive as they were under his rule. The failure of the military to deal with the lack of security across the country has led to demands both by political veterans and revolutionaries that the army stand down.

Badawi called for the dismissal of prime minister Kamal el-Ganzouri and the formation of a “revolutionary cabinet” capable of imposing law and order. He demanded that the junta hold early presidential elections, presently scheduled for June, and accelerate the transfer of authority to civilian rule.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest party in the people’s assembly, castigated the interior ministry for failing to provide security. “The security vacuum continues, the police officers are punishing us for revolting,” Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said. He compared events in the stadium with earlier violence when scores of Egyptians were killed in clashes with plain-clothes security men – “thugs” – answerable to the interior ministry. He blamed the military and the government for failing to hold anyone accountable.

The violence erupted when supporters of al-Masri, founded in 1920 as the first sporting club in Port Said for Egyptians, stormed on to the pitch following their club’s 3-1 victory, and began assaulting Ahli players and managers.

There is evidence to suggest the Masri fans were infiltrated by security “thugs” determined to attack Ahli fans, known as “Ultras”, to wreak vengeance for their prominent role during the uprising and protests since Mubarak’s departure.

Al-Ahli’s political DNA is revolutionary and it has a history not wholly dissimilar to the GAA’s. It was founded in 1907 and was a place where Cairo students could meet and plot against colonial rule. It has long been the most successful football club in Africa and is, in effect, the continent’s Manchester United.

Port Said police were accused of standing by as fighting broke out. Ahli fans seeking to escape the melee found the stadium gates were locked, and many were crushed in the rush.

While the head of the military council, Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, ordered army helicopters to bring dead and wounded fans from Port Said to Cairo, and was on hand to receive some of the flights, he cannot hope to escape censure. The incidents are certain to increase pressure on the military to hand over as soon as possible. At best, Egyptians see the generals as incompetent, at worst, conspiring to harm their critics.

Pressure is also likely to mount on the Brotherhood and the ultra-orthodox Salafis who have a majority of seats in parliament to halt their co-operation with the military council and, once again, join the secular revolutionaries in Tahrir Square and the streets of other cities to demand that the transformation of Egypt continue until multiparty democracy is attained. Muslim fundamentalists both in the Brotherhood and Salafi groups have made common cause with the military rather than the revolutionaries.