PORT SAID, Egypt -- The rivalry between Port Said’s al Masry soccer club and Cairo’s al Ahly team is legendary, so angry and violent that for many years police made a habit of escorting fans into and out of the stadium for fear of violence.
But on Feb. 1, 2012, those precautions were forgotten. The melee that followed the game that day left 74 people dead – and heaped more fuel on Egypt’s simmering cauldron of discontent.
Last weekend more than 60 people died in riots that were triggered when a judge sentenced 21 people to death for their roles in last year’s stampede. On Friday, thousands turned out for protests around the country to mark the anniversary of the tragedy, with many using the occasion to renew their calls for the resignation of President Mohammed Morsi. Some threw Molotov cocktails over the walls of the presidential palace and battled with presidential guards. One person was killed and at least 48 people were injured near the palace.
Yet for all the attention the events of that day have received in Egypt, few people know the details of what happened. Egyptian journalists have been forbidden, under penalty of jail, from reporting on the specifics of the criminal cases lodged against 75 defendants. No official report has been issued on the incident. If there had been, people might be even angrier.
A 200-page summary of the prosecution’s case, obtained by McClatchy, claims that what took place was a planned assault that could be blamed as much on police as on overzealous fans.
Police failed to check fans entering the stadium for weapons. Someone sealed the stadium’s gates, trapping fans, who either died pressed against the welded-closed entrances or were hurled to their deaths from their upper deck seats.
The summary also alleges that someone shut off the stadium lights as the fight began, allegedly at the request of the leader of Port Said’s al Masry club.
The case file in some ways is a snapshot of the problems that plague Egypt: a failed police force that hasn’t secured the nation the way it did under deposed President Hosni Mubarak and is unable to prepare for potentially volatile events. Indeed, before last Saturday’s court hearing in the case, there were warnings that the sentences very likely would lead to violence between “ultras” – die-hard supporters of each team. But no security measures were in place in Port Said or Cairo for the ruling.
A Human Rights Watch report released Friday says that despite a change in government, many police abuses continue, one of the many gripes that prompts protesters to use events such as the Port Said verdict to take to the streets. At least 11 detainees have been killed in police custody, Human Rights Watch found. It also found that serious human rights problems remain.
“Police continued to use torture in police stations and at points of arrest, mostly during investigations in regular criminal cases, but also in some political cases, such as the torture of protesters arrested in Cairo in August and November,” the report says. “Police have also continued to use excessive and sometimes lethal force, both in policing demonstrations and in regular policing.”
On Monday, Morsi ordered military tanks on the streets after protests between citizens and police killed 32 people in Port Said in one day. He also imposed a 30-day curfew and emergency law in the three canal provinces that saw the most violence – Port Said, Suez and Ismailia – which residents have ignored. The military has said it’s there only to protect government buildings, even as Morsi gave soldiers the authority to arrest civilians.