Port Said dialogue aims to restore calm, assurance

Shaken by soccer stadium bloodbath, residents and leaders attempt to heal wounds from the violence, its aftermath.

Egyptians protest after Port Said massacre_390 (photo credit: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
Egyptians protest after Port Said massacre_390
(photo credit: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
Cairo – A group of Egyptian political, religious and social leaders and activists have been participating over the past few days in a dialogue with residents of Port Said in an effort to reduce tension that had built up following the tragedy of February 1. On that day, rioting that broke out following a soccer match, left more than 70 dead in the city along the northeastern coast.
Dubbed “goodwill ambassadors” by local media, George Ishaq – a well-known human rights activist and member of the National Coalition for Change -- is responsible for the effort to bring citizens of the city together in what he called an “effort for reconciliation.”
Ishaq, a Port Said native, was accompanied by other leading figures in the hopes of helping to bridge the residents’ frustration and embarrassment that their city had become synonymous with violence and insecurity.
Gameela Ismail, a political figure who hosts a popular late-night news talk show, said that during her time in the city with the delegation she felt that residents were concerned over how they are being perceived by the rest of Egypt.
“The issue will only be solved with time,” Ismail told The Media Line, arguing that while talking is important, it cannot be the city’s final effort. She said security personnel must be investigated for their role over the violence that saw local underdog Al-Masry fans attack supporters of Cairo’s highly-favored visiting team Al-Ahly following the home team’s 3-1 victory.
After the final whistle blew, Al-Masry fans rushed the field, throwing firecrackers at the opposing fans before attacking them with knives, batons and rocks. Eyewitnesses said people were thrown from the top levels of the stadium to their deaths.
Throughout the entire incident, the security forces tasked with maintaining order at the arena remained immobile, refusing to intervene to stop the bloodshed. They were reported to have closed closing the stadium’s gates preventing spectators from being able to flee to safety.
“Police are being investigated, but nobody has confessed to taking responsibility and rumors of former members of the Mubarak regime being behind the violence have not been founded,” Ismail continued.
As residents of Port Said, Ismail and Ishaq were hopeful that Egyptians across the country would not view them as criminals. Ismail, who devoted a large portion of her program on Friday to the tragic events and the residents’ reactions and hopes, said that many in her audience told her, “’we are not criminals.’ They expressed their problems that are same as other Egyptians and have been there for decades.”
While the delegation is only expected to spend another day or so in the port city, many of the leaders returning to Cairo over the weekend, the effort to bridge the gap, according to Ishaq, “was a step in the right direction. We are all Egyptian.”
At stake is the reputation of the city and its historical position as a stalwart resister. During the Mubarak era, Port Said was often viewed by the government as a nuisance for its anti-Mubarak sentiments.
“I don’t think talk alone can do anything because we need prosecutions for those responsible,” Ismail continued, “but in time, I do think the city can start to rekindle its spirit that was anti-Mubarak and the people who defended against occupation,” an anti-Israel reference that is becoming more frequently heard from Egyptians following the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
“We need to understand what happened, why it happened and begin to deal with it,” said Ismail. It is a start, she said, but added that investigations into the security apparatus at the stadium and in the city on the night of the violence “must be serious.”
While it may be too early to gauge the success of the delegations’ meetings, the reality is that Egyptians have been stunned by the violence at the stadium. Calls by Al-Ahly fans, or Ultras -- the hardcore fans who have long made up the frontlines at both matches and at protests -- for justice and even retaliation for their fans’ deaths have continued to keep the country on edge.
Yet, there are signs of hope. Already, more than fifty people have been arrested for their participation in the attacks. Ishaq is hopeful that through the discussions with people in the city, they will be able to renew the idea of citizenship and understanding as a means to heal and move forward despite the hardships that residents have been experiencing.
For Ismail, “it is not a one-time deal that will solve things.” But he does believe in the idea of a national dialogue for Egypt, which has seen over 1,000 people killed since the uprising began in January 2011 and exploded the country into political and social turmoil.