The Port Said Football Riot Case Is a Big Mess of Sadness and Death
Last week, Egypt's police and military forces took to the streets of Port Said to fire at each other with live ammunition for just under ten hours, which was obviously mental. This past Saturday, violence was reclaimed by the Egyptian people, who spread it all throughout Egypt – most spectacularly in central Cairo – as the final verdict was handed down to the defendants in the Port Said stadium riot case, in which fans of the Al-Masry and Al Ahly football teams clashed, leaving 79 dead. The court acquitted 28 of the accused, sentenced five to life in prison and upheld the decision to execute the remaining 21 deemed to be involved in the violence in February last year.
After the verdict was announced, “the city was strangely quiet,” Mohammed El-Alamy, a Port Said resident told me. “It was as if people were angry, but the anger had nowhere to go.” As the city reeled from the news, the Ultras Green Eagles (hardcore Al-Masry supporters) called for a peaceful protest at the mouth of the Suez. There, in an apparent attempt to shut down the canal, protesters hung burning tyres from the docks and cut the tethers to boats tied to the mainland. Unfortunately for the protesters, that didn't achieve much, as the Suez remained open throughout the protests.
In Cairo, the reaction to the verdict was severe and unexpectedly violent. On early Saturday morning, the Ultras Ahlawy (hardcore Al Ahly supporters) gathered at the Gezira club in the upmarket area of Zamalek to hear the results of the case. “After we heard, we celebrated, then everyone went home,” a media representative and long-time member of the Ultras Ahlawy told me, agreeing to speak on the condition he remained anonymous.
What followed was a sequence of coordinated attacks on several Cairo institutions. Unknown assailants ransacked a police club and the offices of the National Football Federation, breaking windows and setting fire to both buildings. Throughout the day, military helicopters flew low over downtown, scooping water from the Nile and dropping it on the fires. In the afternoon, two downtown restaurants supposedly owned by Khatir El-Shater – a wealthy businessman with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – were also attacked.
It’s unclear who carried out these attacks, but media sources have pointed the blame towards the Ultras Ahlawy and Black Bloc, the group of masked protesters taking their cues from earlier black bloc groups in the West. The Ultras Ahlawy member I spoke to had a different theory: “It was the Muslim Brotherhood – all of it. They burned everything to turn the public against the ultras.”
Footage of the restaurant attack was posted online, where you can make out the group of attackers clad in all-black clothing and masks, pointing straight to the Black Bloc, but nothing has yet been confirmed. “None of my friends were there," the ultra I spoke to told me. "Every member of the Ultras I know went directly home after the announcement.” A source present during the attacks told me that ultras were in fact present at both the Football Federation building and the police club, and refused to be filmed.
The violence has since died down, but this reaction has served to highlight the culture of misinformation and gossip that fuels conflict between various sections of Egyptian youth. Multiple narratives about the Ultras Ahlawy and the events in Port Said are accepted as fact by these large, angry and highly impressionable groups of young Egyptians. The Ultras Ahlawy guy I talked to was adamant that the Ultras Green Eagles and other Port Said residents instigated the attacks. “I know because my friends told me. They saw Ultras [Green Eagles] stabbing and fighting with us,” he explained. Ali Saleh, a Port Said resident who was present at the game, provided a different outlook on the events: “The police organised everything. They provoked the fighting and allowed it to happen. No one in Port Said wanted anyone to get hurt, especially over football.”
While the member of Ultras Ahlawy was adamant that, “everyone in Port Said who was arrested is guilty,” the Ultras Green Eagles, unsurprisingly, feel otherwise. I was able to contact a group of Ultras Green Eagles, who also agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity. They explained, “[After the Port Said massacre] the police began to gather the innocent leaders of Ultras Green Eagles. Some members were sent to jail after being accused of being murderers. We're not against justice, but what happened was fake. How can you arrest innocent people and manipulate the media to convince the crowds that they are the murderers? We refuse to be a sacrifice.”
While each group of ultras continues to proclaim the other's guilt, the defendants – many of whom are now convicted prisoners – are preparing themselves for the grim, hopeless futures they've been sentenced to. Ahmed Mohamed was a law student at Ain Shams University in Cairo who travelled to Port Said on the night of the massacre to support the Al Ahly team. After the game ended and the fighting began, Mohamed fled to the police to escape the chaos. He was arrested, along with the other defendants, and after several court sessions released to continue his studies.
On Saturday, he was shocked to hear that, in fact, he wouldn't be continuing his studies, but instead had been sentenced to death by hanging. Sources close to Ahmed claim that he is currently in hiding somewhere in Egypt and has no plans of turning himself over to authorities, which seems like the logical thing to do if you don't want to be hanged for a crime you're adamant you didn't commit. Family members of Ibrahim Montaser – a defendant who's been sentenced to ten years in jail – had a similar story. "He went to the game and left at half time to attend his sister's wedding. He was recorded on the wedding video, but he was still arrested,” said one of Montaser’s cousins.
It’s unlikely that any common consensus will ever be reached on this increasingly contentious issue, but one thing is certain – everyone I talked to, from either Port Said or Cairo, shares a burning hatred for the security forces present at the game. “We want the Green Eagles to be punished,” the Ultras Ahlawy member told me, “but most of all, we want to kill all police.”
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