Thursday, February 02, 2012

In Clashes With Police, Egyptians Unleash Fury Over Soccer Deaths

February 2, 2012

In Clashes With Police, Egyptians Unleash Fury Over Soccer Riot Deaths

New York Times

CAIRO — The police in several Egyptian cities on Thursday night battled with thousands of die-hard soccer fans angry at the military-led government’s failure to prevent dozens of deaths at a soccer riot in Port Said the previous night.

In Suez, two protesters were wounded by birdshot and two others by live ammunition, the Health Ministry said, while in Cairo more than 600 were injured by tear gas and stampeding crowds.

The fans, known as ultras, began their demonstration in the capital by directing their fury in part at the Port Said club’s supporters, who attacked a visiting Cairo club, Al Ahly, on Wednesday night. But by the time their march reached the barbed-wire barriers protecting the Interior Ministry, the soccer rivalries were forgotten in a battle against their shared enemy, the police.

Rumors that the police had deliberately abetted the violence at the match on Wednesday circulated through the crowd but were impossible to confirm. Protesters charged that the police had neglected to search fans for weapons, or had opened gates for the Port Said fans while closing them on the Cairo contingent or had turned out the lights to give the home fans cover.

About 70 people were killed in the riot on Wednesday.

Many protesters said they believed that the Interior Ministry meant to retaliate against the Cairo soccer fans because of their leading role in several violent battles with the police at protests over the past three months. At nationally televised games, the ultras have also picked up the habit of chanting for the ouster of the military rulers who took over from President Hosni Mubarak, piercing the walls set up by the generals, who jealously guard their public image.

“The military is taking revenge on us,” said Tarek Adel, 24.

Egypt’s newly elected Parliament, called into an emergency session to address the crisis related to the riot, sent a fact-finding committee to Port Said to investigate the Interior Ministry’s role in the violence, with orders to report back by next week.

Essam el-Erian, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc that leads Parliament, presented the signatures of 120 lawmakers who demanded that charges be filed against the interior minister, and Parliament assigned a panel to question him.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the ruling military council and the de facto chief executive, called for three days of national mourning.

He also accepted the resignation of the governor of Port Said. The government suspended the district’s director of security and the chief of its detective unit, and by the end of the night the state media reported that both men had been detained by the police.

The Interior Ministry said it had interrogated more than 50 people suspected of instigating the clashes, including a dozen minors.

The bodies of 52 people killed in Port Said were taken to a Cairo morgue before they were released for burial here, suggesting that most of the victims were on the side of the Cairo team.

News reports indicated that many of those killed in the fighting were teenagers or younger, and at least one victim in the Cairo morgue appeared to be younger than 10.

Groups of ultras organized around rival clubs began appearing in Egypt within the past decade. Although rival fans often clashed, all shared a common culture of obscene chants, special firecrackers and instruments, and a violent hatred of the police who usually try to control them. Some paint vulgar insults to the police on walls around Cairo.

In the year since the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, the ultras have increasingly found that political demonstrations are good for practicing their second favorite sport, fighting with police officers. They played an especially pivotal role in the defense of Tahrir Square against Mubarak supporters in the so-called Battle of the Camels a year ago Thursday. They also led an attack on the Israeli Embassy that grew out of a demonstration in September.

Increasingly politicized, they have recently expanded their repertory to include chants demanding the end of military rule, calling for the death of Field Marshal Tantawi or making lewd insults about the mothers of the ruling generals.

In the aftermath of the deaths in Port Said, the rival groups of ultras around Cairo’s two most popular teams, Al Ahly and Zamalek, marched together in a rare moment of solidarity, with each of their banners on the same pole as an Egyptian flag.

At first some of their chants denounced the Port Said fans. But as the march progressed they sang mostly about the ruling generals. “Ultras Al Ahly will execute Tantawi,” they chanted, and “They killed the free ultras because they took the side of the revolutionaries.”

And as they crossed Tahrir Square toward the Interior Ministry, their chants grew more aggressive: “We either avenge them or die like them.”

By nightfall, thousands of ultras filled the downtown district around the ministry, drumming, chanting and eventually setting garbage and tires on fire. Some of those present said they were not soccer fans but activists who had come out in political solidarity against the ruling military council, which they also blamed for allowing the violence.

The soccer fans hurled obscenities at the row of riot police officers stationed behind a barbed-wire barrier in front of the Interior Ministry, and around dusk began dismantling the barrier. A row of demonstrators formed in front of the ultras to try to separate them from the riot police.

While some tried to calm the crowd, others egged each other on. “If you are scared, you can go home” was a common refrain. “They kill us or we kill them,” one person shouted.

Around 6:30 p.m., the ultras began dragging a large metal gate toward the front line. The police suddenly ran back in retreat.

The tear gas began just as the retreating officers reached the ministry, and at midnight the crowds were still surging forward and retreating back through narrow side streets. People with motorcycles carted away the injured, some of whom appeared too young to shave.

“They’re very stupid,” one demonstrator said of Egypt’s military rulers. “They turned the biggest fan base in the country against them.”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

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