Egyptians riot over soccer verdicts

Violence in Egypt over the football verdicts demonstrate Egyptian sense of betrayal and Morsi's lack of control.

soccer hooligan egypt (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
soccer hooligan egypt
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Soccer violence broke out again in Egypt this week.  The cause was controversial judicial verdicts relating to the worst incident of sports violence in Egyptian history, which occurred last February in the city of Port Said.
Twenty-one people were sentenced to death for their role in the 2012 tragedy.  Rioting soon resulted after these verdicts were announced, claiming another 33 fatalities. Armed police, aided by tanks, were quickly deployed on the streets of Port Said to restore calm.
Last February, 74 people were killed and approximately 1,000 injured in the stadium at Port Said when violence broke out after local team al-Masry defeated their Cairo rivals, al-Ahli. Many of those killed were supporters of the visiting Cairo team. Local fans, however, blamed the police for taking inadequate steps to protect those in the stadium.  The tragedy brought the domestic football league to a standstill.
Judge Sobhy Abdel Maguid read out live on state television the death penalty verdicts for 21 of the 73 accused on trial. All the convicted were locals from Port Said. The verdicts are being sent to the supreme religious authority in Egypt, the Grand Mufti, for review and approval.
Supporters dressed in red outside al-Ahli's ground in Cairo celebrated the verdicts, while residents of Port Said took to the streets to vent their anger. Two police stations and a number of official buildings, including a power station, were attacked by protesters carrying guns.  Eventually, 33 people in Port Said were killed in the rioting. The emotions were still high the following day when at least seven additional people were killed during funerals for the earlier victims, which had drawn thousands of mourners.
Some al-Masry fans have claimed that the death penalty verdicts were an attempt to make their club and its fans a scapegoat, and resulted from a calculated decision to avoid further violence in Cairo. Hooligans associated with al-Ahli were threatening to take matters into their own hands if they did not see justice done by the court.
This week also saw the second anniversary of the overthrow of long-standing Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak. As a result, the football verdicts arrived at a time when political sensitivities were particularly raw. Demonstrations against the government of President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, occurred in a number of leading Egyptian cities, including Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, and had already resulted in eleven fatalities when the football verdicts was announced.
Morsi responded to the rising casualty numbers by declaring a state of emergency and enforcing curfews in the provinces of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia. As Morsi struggles to maintain control over his country, critics are questioning his commitment to democracy. Many who supported the original uprising in Tahrir Square now feel the promises of the Arab Spring revolution have been discarded, and those who sacrificed so much to bring about Mubarak’s political demise are now left abandoned.
Morsi faces massive challenges domestically. The economy is still in tatters. The country’s attempt to transition into a functioning democracy still faces many hurdles and impediments.
The current threat to Egyptian stability should not be underestimated. The military is sending large numbers of troops to cities along Suez Canal in order to restore peace. Defense minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi warned that the current unrest could ultimately lead to the collapse of the state.
Post-Mubarak Egypt has failed to develop a meaningful consensus on how to prioritize the country’s challenges. Feelings of betrayal are growing among large segments of the population. As the Islamists and the liberals argue amongst themselves in their attempts to generate concrete policy choices, the military appears to be waiting uneasily in the background.
American support is crucial for the Morsi regime, although its anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric makes that support highly controversial and, perhaps, ultimately counter-productive. US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy will be judged in part by his decision to allow Mubarak to fall, when there was no clear view on what sort of leadership would replace him. Egyptians continue to suffer the consequences of this fateful decision (or indecision) today.
The verdicts in the Port Said football tragedy place the blame for the deaths on locals, rather than security officers or government officials. By shifting any blame away from Cairo, al-Masry supporters and other residents rioted, demonstrating how fragile Morsi’s grasp control over his country actually is. By taking their grievances to the streets, more innocent people died. This inability to maintain public order and security may be the most fatal indictment made so far against Morsi and his Islamist party.
Not every dispute breaks down cleanly into disagreements over political ideology or religious belief. Often there are underlying concerns and grievances that incite in people anger against their government and their leaders. The Arab Spring was not sufficient in itself to enable Egypt to reform itself and its political and economic institutions. The myriad of problems that it faced over recent decades remain unresolved today.
The violence in Port Said over the football verdicts, as well as the widespread protests against Morsi’s government, demonstrate that many Egyptians still feel betrayed and alienated. Failure to adequately prepare for the consequences of an unstable Egypt will have serious repercussions in this volatile region.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Economist.