The violence Egypt has witnessed during the so-called ‘Battle of Port Said’ has grave implications for the trajectory of Egypt’s revolution and the country’s prospects for stability and democratization. As over seventy lie dead with hundreds wounded, a chilling picture of political strategy, rather than soccer mayhem, emerges. This is not the first time soccer matches have been used for political ends in Egypt- one need only recall the chaos in Um Durman between Algeria and Egypt to remind oneself of the pervasiveness of this practice. However, never before has soccer violence escalated to this level, nor has it ever had such severe consequences.
The February 1, 2012 match was played in Port Said, the home city of the Al Masry team. After the game ended with an Al Masry victory against al-Ahly, Masry fans stormed the Ahly players and fans. Reports point to an insufficient police presence in the stadium, despite the well-known tensions between the two teams, and videos show security forces standing idly by as mobs chased after al-Ahly players. Neither the governor nor Port Said’s chief of security attended the match, which is highly unusual.
The events of February 1st were a continuation of the policies implemented during the Mubarak era, namely inciting chaos for purposes of presenting the incumbent leader as the only solution for stability. This is what happened in 2011 during the lawlessness of the revolution, when prisoners were released and the police retreated from the streets. Moreover, the clear targeting of al-Ahly’s ‘Ultras’ fans was likely motivated by the group’s activism during the revolution.
The growth of the “Ultras,” a group of die-hard soccer fans with loyalties to different soccer teams in Egypt, has been a natural result of the politicization of Egyptian soccer in the last decade of Mubarak’s rule. The regime promoted soccer rivalries to divert the youth’s attention from the country’s dismal conditions. However, with the emergence of social networking sites, the Ultras also became a natural site for political expression. In one notable instance, the Ultras for the Zamalek soccer team were chased by police as they demonstrated in memory of the Palestinian intifada. Ever since the start of the January 25 Revolution, the al-Ahly Ultras have been especially instrumental in encouraging people to participate in the protests, protect Tahrir square, and confront the security forces. Since Mubarak was deposed, the Ahly Ultras have chanted against military rule before almost all matches, and have supported the continuation of the revolution.
If nothing else, the events of Port Said were a clear and direct attack on the al-Ahly Ultras for their political activism. It also comes as no surprise that the Port Said violence followed the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) decision to ease Egypt’s state of emergency law. The easing of the law came as a preemptive concession ahead of the large protests planned for the one year anniversary of the January 25th revolution. Since then, news of armed robberies, hijackings and fires have flooded the country, with this latest massacre leaving Egyptians in shock. Since Port Said, the regime now speaks of the “necessity of banning protests”, as well as the police’s inability to subdue the masses due to its limited law enforcement role since the revolution. In commenting on the events of Port Said, Field Marshal Tantway, the head of SCAF, attributed the violence only to a soccer rivalry and called upon Egyptians to take responsibility in dealing with these matters. Nonetheless, he insisted that security in Egypt was being upheld.
Amid the lives lost and the state of chaos and fear that has overcome the country, Tantawy and the SCAF emerge as the real victors of this match.
*Nancy Elshami is a staff writer at Muftah.