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At least 71 are confirmed dead in the worst-ever fan violence following a sporting event in Egypt, after a fight apparently broke out between fans of the home football team Masry and visiting team Ahly in the coastal city of Port Said.
People moving from the Masry stands swarmed the field after a 3-1 victory over Ahly, in a riot that also left at least 313 injured and seems certain to shake Egyptian society to its core.
The violence has already raised calls to assign blame, with many accusing security forces and their bosses in Egypt’s transition, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Others are opting to situate the event in expected football hooliganism, common in Egypt.
Eyewitnesses described security forces as doing very little to prevent the violence, while more than just Masry fans attacked the Ahly Ultras. “All of my friends returning from the match assured us that they were not attacked by soccer fans only, but by another infiltrating crowd,” said journalist Mohamed Beshir on his Twitter account.
Eyewitnesses also confirmed that security was entirely absent when the Masry fans stormed the field. They claimed that security forces allowed Masry fans to enter the visiting team’s stands. Masry fans were allowed to celebrate their third goal in the field without being confronted by police. They did the same after they won the match and instead of celebrating their extremely rare win, began attacking Ahly players and fans.
“We were worried and pleaded with Central Security Forces to allow us to wait behind closed doors until things died down, while they kept telling us to leave,” said Ahmed, an Ahly Ultras member who refused to give his full name due to the group’s no-media policy. When they refused to leave the stands, Central Security Forces opened the door to angry Masry fans, and that’s when the situation worsened, Ahmed added.
“Security forces are supposed to secure the exit of fans with an iron fist. Protocol calls for them to close all gates leading to the visiting team’s fans until they are sure of their security,” said Adel Aql, a veteran football match observer.
Reports suggest that the security ignored warning signs of potential clashes. In the pre-match warm up, fans fired flare guns and fireworks at the Ahly players and, “police received a tip that known ex-cons were making their way to the Masry stadium armed with melee weapons,” said Wael Qandeel, managing editor of the daily Al-Shorouk, citing personal sources.
In a statement posted by the Masry Ultras Green Eagles on their Facebook page, the group assured that they were committed to peacefully supporting their team and preventing any infiltrators from reaching their ranks. The group noted that it was approached by “some thugs” before the match as they wanted to pressure the government to give them apartments by attempting to kidnap the Ahly players from their hotel. The Masry Ultras also said that earlier in the morning, some people fought to get tickets to the game threatening vendors with arms.
“Our group has nothing to do with what happened. We shall stop our activities as the Masry Ultras Green Eagles in respect to those who were killed for Egypt,” read the statement, which also called for a march to protest the violence and demand an end to military rule.
Many of the victims died from direct blows to the head with weapons, and others from asphyxiation from being trampled under the 17,000-strong crowd, according to Health Ministry reports.
“This is a massacre. I’ve never seen as many dead bodies in one place at one time out of all the wars I’ve witnessed,” said Port Said MP Al-Badry Farghaly in a television interview.
Farghaly confirmed reports that the Port Said governor and the city’s head of security did not attend the match, which is uncommon for games between the two teams.
“For the first time in the recent history of matches between the two teams, the governor and head of security from the city are absent,” said Khaled Mamdouh, a veteran sports journalist in a television interview.
“I am not a proponent of conspiracy theories. But today a massacre happened, and someone has to be responsible. There is only the SCAF right now who seems responsible. This is an indication that we all need to stand together to end military rule as soon as possible,” said activist Wael Khalil.
Wednesday’s violence came right after SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi gave a speech saying he would limit the use of the Emergency Law to acts of thuggery. It also comes one day after Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim spoke at Parliament proselytizing on the merit of emergency laws. Many linked the match violence to these statements in a regime quest to showcase the relevance of the Emergency Law, abolishment of which has been one of the main demands of the revolutionaries since January 2011.
“What happened cannot be a coincidence. This massacre and three armed robberies happened only one day after Ibrahim tried to talk to us about the need for a state of emergency,” Ziad al-Elaimy, an MP with the Social Democratic Party said in a television interview.
“There is no such thing as 73 killed [the official number when Younis spoke] because of a soccer game. This is a planned massacre, just like the Mohamed Mahmoud massacre in November,” said Sherif Younis, a history professor at Helwan University, in reference to the November 2011 clashes that left more than 40 dead after security forces and military police attacked a small group of peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square.
Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi echoed Younis’ sentiments in a television interview when he said, “This is a planned ambush on the Ahly Ultras group for their prominent role in the 25 January Revolution.” The fans of the popular club were at the forefront of the protests that led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak last year as well as ongoing protests demanding the end of the SCAF’s rule.
In its statement, the Muslim Brotherhood opted to blame security forces for "punishing the Egyptian people for their revolution," while denouncing all acts of violence throughout the country, including, "the threat to attack Parliament and the youth of the Brothers who stood to protect it." On Tuesday, a stand-off between peaceful protesters and Brotherhood youth around Parliament led to 75 injuries.
Tantawi refused to comment on the possibility of sacking the Port Said governor while giving interviews at Cairo International Airport where many of the injured were arriving. “This could happen anywhere in the world,” he said.
He also called on people to take the matter into their own hands. “Normal people must move against the people who did this,” said Tantawi. “Normal people did this, so normal people must move to stop them.”
The SCAF announced a three-day mourning period and said it is forming an investigative committee.
While the SCAF sent two planes to transport the most badly injured Ahly fans back to Cairo, the central Cairo train station in Midan Ramses was filled with incensed protesters looking to receive the rest of the returning fans.
Along with weeping family and friends lamenting the massacre and demanding justice, thousands stood in unison throughout Thursday's early morning hours chanting “Down with military rule … down with the field marshal.”