The Egyptian government has sacked the head of security in the northern city of Port Said after an explosion of soccer violence that left 74 people dead, state media reported on Thursday.
YouTube video footage of the pitch invasion in Port Said
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim fired city security chief Essam Samak because of the rioting that erupted on Wednesday seconds after the final whistle at a match between two rival teams, the MENA news agency reported.
Egyptians, incensed by the deaths, staged protests on Thursday as fans and politicians accused the ruling generals of failing to prevent the deadliest incident since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.
Young men blocked roads near the state television building and the capital’s landmark Tahrir Square and a crowd gathered at Cairo’s main rail station hoping to see relatives returning from the game in Port Said.
As covered bodies from Egypt’s worst soccer disaster were offloaded from trains, thousands chanted “down with military rule”.
“Where is my son?” screamed Fatma Kamal, whose frantic phone calls seeking news of her 18-year-old had gone unanswered. “To hell with the football match … Give me back my boy.”
At least 1 000 people were injured in the violence.
Hundreds of al-Masry supporters surged across the pitch to the visitors’ end and panicked Ahli fans dashed for the exit. But the steel doors were bolted shut and dozens were crushed to death in the stampede, witnesses said.
Angry politicians denounced a thin security presence given the tense build-up to the match and accused Egypt’s military leaders of allowing, or even causing, the fighting.
Parliament held an emergency session to discuss the violence. The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the assembly, said an “invisible” hand was behind the tragedy.
The interior ministry blamed the violence on a section of the crowd which it said had deliberately set out to cause “anarchy, a riot and a stampede”.
Hundreds gathered near the stadium in Port Said on Thursday, chanting: “Port Said people are innocent. This is a conspiracy.”
The army’s fiercest critics regularly accuse it of sowing disorder in Egypt to scupper a transition to civilian rule. The military has pledged to step aside by mid-year.
Activists called a march at 4pm local time from Al Ahli’s club ground in central Cairo to the interior ministry to protest.
‘Choose me or choose chaos’
“The military council wants to prove that the country is heading towards chaos and destruction. They are Mubarak’s men. They are applying his strategy when he said ‘choose me or choose chaos’,” said Mahmoud el-Naggar (30) a laboratory technician and member of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth in Port Said.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi (76) who heads the ruling military council, took the unusual step of speaking by telephone to a television channel owned by Al Ahli, vowing to track down the culprits. The army announced three days of national mourning.
“I deeply regret what happened at the football match in Port Said. I offer my condolences to the victims’ families,” Tantawi said in comments broadcast on state television.
It did little to assuage the anger of fans, who, like many Egyptians, are furious that Egypt is still plagued by lawlessness and frequent bouts of deadly violence almost a year after Mubarak was driven out and replaced by an army council.
“The people want the execution of the field marshal,” fans chanted at the Cairo rail station. “We will secure their rights, or die like them,” they said.
The post-match pitch invasion provoked panic among the crowd as rival fans fought. Most of the deaths were among people who were trampled in the crush of the panicking crowd or who fell or were thrown from terraces, witnesses and health workers said.
Television footage showed some security officers in the stadium showing no sign of trying to stop the pitch invasion. One officer was filmed talking on a mobile phone as people poured onto the field.
Crying and dying
“The rush caused a stampede, people were pushing each other against the metal door and stepping on each other,” said one witness who attended the match, 23-year-old Ossama El-Zayat.
“We saw riot police firing shots in the air and then everyone got scared and kept pushing against the locked door. We didn’t know whether police were firing live rounds or not. People were crying and dying,” he said.
Several enraged politicians and ordinary Egyptians accused officials who are still in their jobs after the fall of Mubarak of complicity in the tragedy, or at least of allowing a security vacuum that has let violence flourish in the past 12 months.
“The security forces did this or allowed it to happen. The men of Mubarak are still ruling. The head of the regime has fallen but all his men are still in their positions,” Albadry Farghali, a member of parliament for Port Said, screamed in a telephone call to live television.
Some saw the violence as orchestrated to target the “Ultras”, Al Ahli fans whose experience confronting police at soccer matches was turned with devastating effect against Mubarak’s heavy-handed security forces in the uprising.
They played a significant role in defending Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising against Mubarak, when men on camels and horses charged protesters last year. Thursday is the anniversary of the notorious February 2 camel charge.
“All that happened is not for the sake of a game. It’s political. It was orchestrated by the military council to target the Ultras,” said Abdullah el-Said, a 43-year-old driver in Port Said. “The military council wanted to crush the Ultras because they sided with protesters ever since the revolution began.”
Yet many Egyptians still see the army as the only guarantor of security. When one activist in a group outside a hospital accused the army of sowing chaos, a man chimed in blaming the youths: “Security has to return to the streets. Enough with all those protests that caused this security vacuum,” he yelled.
Some blamed the violence on “thugs”, the hired hands or plain clothes police officers of Mubarak’s era who would often emerge from police lines to crush dissent to his rule.
“Unknown groups came between the fans and they were the ones that started the chaos. I was at the match and I saw that the group that did this is not from Port Said,” said Farouk Ibrahim.
“They were thugs, like the thugs the National Democratic Party used in elections,” he said, referring to Mubarak’s former party and the polls that were routinely rigged in its favour.
The two soccer teams — al-Masry and Al Ahli — have a history of fierce rivalry. Witnesses said fighting began after Ahli fans unfurled banners insulting Port Said and one descended to the pitch carrying an iron bar at the end of the match.
“I saw people holding machetes and knives. Some were hit with these weapons, other victims were flung from their seats, while the invasion happened,” Usama El Tafahni, a journalist in Port Said who attended the match, said.
Many fans died in a subsequent stampede, while some were flung off their seats onto the pitch and were killed by the fall. At the height of the disturbances, rioting fans fired flares straight into the stands.
Television footage showed fans running onto the field and chasing Al Ahli players. A small group of riot police formed a corridor to protect the players, but they appeared overwhelmed and fans were still able to kick and punch players as they fled.
Tantawi said a fact-finding committee would be set up and pledged that the army’s plan to hand over power to civilians would not be derailed.
“Egypt will be stable. We have a roadmap to transfer power to elected civilians. If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt they will not succeed,” he told Al Ahli’s channel.
Ibrahim said 47 people were arrested and Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri held an emergency meeting of his security council that includes including Ibrahim and a military representative.
Egypt’s football federation said it was indefinitely delaying matches for the Egyptian premier league. Al Ahli club said in a statement it was suspending all sports activities and holding three days of mourning. — Reuters-AFP