The politics behind Egypt's football riot
It's easy enough to confuse the riots that blighted a soccer match in the Egyptian city of Port Said on Wednesday for yet another in the long line of soccer matches blighted by hooliganism and crowd violence. At least 74 fans were killed -- many crushed to death as they tried to escape a bloodthirsty mob -- when rival supporter groups turned on each other after home team al-Masry's victory over Egyptian power al-Ahly. But the verdict on the ground in Egypt is nearly unanimous: While deadly crushes and crowd-control issues have plagued soccer for decades, don't heap the blame for this tragedy on the game.
This calamity has all the clumsy fingerprints of a setup. On a balmy night in Port Said, the game and some of its most fanatic supporters look to have been framed.
It's been widely noted that the circumstances surrounding the riot are suspicious at best. The massacre came on the one-year anniversary of the storming of Tahrir Square by a group of pro-Mubarak counter-revolutionaries. It was directed at a group known for manifesting a liberal political agenda through support for a team founded in the name of historically disenfranchised workers and students. And it occurred at a moment when the interim military government has urged the citizenry to support the extension of emergency powers, and with the seeming complicity of law enforcement and stadium security.
"Of course it's politically [motivated]," said Mohamed Bakry, a student in nearby Suez who lost friends in the violence. "The people who was there said 'we saw a strange people with a lot of weapons in the stadium, and [at the] entrance [to] the stadium no one asked us about a ticket.'"
"We're getting detailed accounts of the police standing aside and letting these groups through," said Elizabeth Arrott, Voice of America bureau chief in Egypt. "There are reports that they may have even opened the barriers separating the crowds."
Given the nearly uniform accounts from the stadium, and video showing police avoiding the onrushing crowds, it looks as if the fervor of the supporters' groups was harnessed as a catalyst for the tragedy. But even without provocation, the situation was already ripe for violence.
"There's no love lost between those sides; many times they meet there have been deaths," said a spokesperson for the Confederation of African Football. "This time there was just poor security. A colleague of mine came to me four or five days ago and told me 'there will be deaths.' The last time al-Masry let the al-Ahly supporters onto the field. This time everyone knew there would be more violence, though I think they are shocked by the level of it."
The hostility went far beyond the typical clashes among soccer hooligans, with hundreds of al-Ahly's Ultras caught between a locked gate -- one that should have provided an escape route from the visiting fans' section -- and an incensed crowd of presumed al-Masry supporters brandishing an arsenal of batons, rocks and knives. While conflict could have been expected when the two groups were allowed to come together, the suspicion in Egypt has fallen on the ease with which the rival groups came together, and the level of preparedness and willingness on the part of the assailants to slay al-Ahly supporters.
"It's a typical level of football fanaticism," Arrott said. "But the general opinion here is that the military is using that to manipulate the situation."
In the wake of the riot at the stadium, Port Said was occupied Thursday by a baton-wielding mob that descended upon the city hall to demand the resignation of the local governor. As violence and discontent continue to fester, questions are also being asked of the administrators of the Egyptian game. At a time when Egypt is reeling in the face of an ever-growing power vacuum, most agree that the emotion-laced atmosphere at the stadium provided ideal conditions for an explosion.
"Anyone will tell you it's an unfortunate time for them to be playing football," said a Cairo-based football official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There are political forces that will use it as a mass gathering, as a time when they can create mayhem and people will let off some steam. Right now there is no one in charge in the country, the police are hated, and there's no way to control [the crowds]. Anyone would say they probably should just stop playing, but they won't. They love the game too much, and it's a way to let off steam. Now we see what it has come to."
Unfortunately for the game and its supporters, soccer now looks to be just one more casualty of the chaos sweeping the country. Intervening circumstances aside, much of the fallout from this tragedy will be heaped on the Egyptian game. Many players -- particularly the al-Ahly contingent, trapped for a time Wednesday night in the Port Said locker room alongside dying fans -- have already expressed unwillingness to return to the field anytime soon. The tournament has been suspended indefinitely, and the prime minister has dissolved the board of the Egyptian Football Association.
FIFA has been quick to ask questions, with Sepp Blatter demanding explanations from the EFA. But under such circumstances the immediate outlook for the local game is not good, and any continuing intervention by the government in the country's soccer governing body would undoubtedly bring consequences from FIFA, possibly including an eventual suspension of the national team.
Among other things, Wednesday's events demonstrate the depth of the state of tension that has seized Egypt. When the world's game ceases to be a form of entertainment and escape, the situation is undoubtedly dire. In most any other stadium on the planet, an upset victory over one of the country's top teams would have been cause for celebration. Instead, in the upside-down world of current Egyptian politics, soccer was made into a symbolic sacrifice, alongside the very real victims of the violence in Port Said.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.