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Crime and possible punishment
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 02 - 2012

An intense sports rivalry or the product of political strife? Who and what killed 74 football fans in Port Said might today be revealed. Alaa Abdel-Ghani reports
Initial results of a fact-finding committee tasked by parliament investigating how 74 people could die in a soccer match are expected today. Although the interior minister and the parliament have already pointed to security shortcomings, the media and the public are talking about something sinister.
There has been intense speculation about the cause of last week's Port Said soccer stadium disaster, Egypt's worst. But that poorly paid and poorly trained riot police failed to keep apart two sets of football fans with a history of violence and mutual hatred is not the explanation currently in vogue.
The police are accused of allowing or even prodding the violence.
The charge of police complicity is serious but so too is what happened. Immediately after the game ended, and host Masri had inflicted a rare 3-1 defeat on Ahli, fans of the winning team surged onto the field, not to celebrate but chase retreating Ahli supporters.
That scene was broadcast. What followed out of sight of television cameras transpired in the stadium's hallways and terraces. Hundreds of Ahli fans fled into a long narrow exit corridor, only to be crushed against a locked gate, their rivals attacking from behind reportedly with knives, clubs and stones.
Survivors and witnesses described people falling or being hurled from the bleachers and other scenes of chaos. Fresh blood was splattered on several seats. Shoes were strewn everywhere. At the height of the disturbances, rioting fans fired flares straight into the Ahli crowd. Mysteriously, at the exact moment of mayhem, the stadium's floodlights were switched off.
In all its grisliness, that's what happened. Why it happened is not as clear. Some Ahli fans hung banners making fun of Masri supporters, apparently provoking the local fans to riot despite their victory.
The general feeling, though, is that a sign insulting supporters of the home team was simply not enough. A case of capricious, incompetent police undermanned and overwhelmed by the situation? Under strength police ever since they were chased off the streets in the revolution a year ago and since keeping a much lower profile? A police unable to manage crowds, fearing they would be vilified? A police which has lost the respect of Egyptians who no longer fear the force?
All partly true, say protesters and broadcasters, but hasten to add, not the whole picture.
Observers of all hues go instead for the long enmity between Ultras of Ahli and the police, before and after the revolution, more than likely explaining why the police who offered a thin presence given the tense build-up and administered no bodily checks of supporters entering the stadium, stepped aside in the face of the deadly assault.
Other theories cannot be taken for granted: ex-members of the Hosni Mubarak regime -- many of whom are now in jail -- seek revenge for their fall from grace by instigating violence in the past 12 months, including the Port Said events.
Infiltration of the home fans by outsiders.
The military allowing the violence to unfold unchecked in order to justify tightening the military's hold on the country.
And of course, the implausible attempts to blame mysterious third parties for social unrest.
It is also possible things got dramatically out of hand. There might indeed have been an attempt by police to actively provoke the unrest but that it was a plan gone awry, going way beyond the original goal of simply beating up -- not murdering and maiming -- fans, some as young as 14.
While Port Said was an event unprecedented for Egypt, it is but one incident in a long line of global football stadium catastrophes. The most infamous was the Heysel Stadium disaster of 29 May 1985 when escaping fans of Juventus of Italy were pressed against a wall by marauding supporters of England's Liverpool in Heysel Stadium in Brussels during a European Cup final. Thirty-nine Juventus fans died and 600 were injured.
In stark contrast to the Port Said match, the people in Belgium died before the game began; it was played despite the disaster in order to prevent further violence. In stark similarity, all English football clubs were banned by UEFA from all European competition for five years, the same number of years Ahli said it would not play in Port Said.
Closer to home, the Accra Sports Stadium disaster in Ghana on 9 May was the worst stadium disaster to have ever taken place in Africa following the loss of 127 people.
For aficionados who collect sad stadium stories the biggest football tragedy in sheer numbers was when Argentina beat Peru on 24 May 1964 in Lima. Death toll: 318 people killed and more than 500 serious injuries.
While such a history of soccer stampedes is little compensation for the families of those gone in Port Said and a country in mourning, the examples illustrate that stadiums can be time-bombs waiting to explode. Tens of thousands of mostly young, energised and enthused Everready fans in a relatively closed space can get caught up in a riot, instigated or started by accident, with lethal consequences.
The Port Said violence, which also injured up to 1,000, erupted just days after two much-anticipated and potentially combustible occasions managed to pass in Egypt with unexpected calm: the first anniversary of the revolt against Mubarak and the installation of a new parliament. The football disaster thus came as an even greater shock, a thunderous bolt from the blue.
This newly-created freest and perhaps loudest parliament of untried deputies faces its first big test. Getting to the bottom of what happened might take more than a week and in truth what really happened in Port Said stadium may never fully be known. What is clear is it was the largest death toll ever in sports-related violence in the country and the deadliest day since Mubarak left power a year ago. As such, the parliament's investigation must produce results as consequential as was the death trap that induced the inquest.


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