Accusations of deliberate provocation and premeditation among the political and security spheres followed within hours of the deaths last evening of 74 football fans after rioting and fighting at the end of an Egyptian league game in Port Said between Al Masry and champions Al Ahly.
Reports by witnesses that some of the most vicious attack on Al Ahly fans was launched by men armed with knives further fuelled the already febrile popular atmosphere on the streets in a country struggling to move forward after the overthrow a year ago of President Hosni Mubarak.
Three days of national mourning were declared after the country’s worst sporting disaster which also saw many hundreds of fans injured in the 25,000-capacity stadium and in surrounding streets.
Ironically, if the Egyptian national team – champions of Africa – had qualified for the current finals under way in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, it is unlikely that this match would have gone ahead in this time and place.
Several fans incursions had greeted the goals from home side Al Masry in their surprise 3-1 win over an Al-Ahly side chasing their eighth successive league title. Thousands of fans then swarmed across the pitch at the final whistle. Security police failed to react and, very quickly, it became clear that the fan invasion was not in celebration but intent on mass violence.
The security forces, while badly undermanned for a game which had always been high-tension, lacked not only competent leadership and coordination but also, apparently, the will to act. That failure to protect Al-Ahly players and fans sparked subsequent accusations of deliberate collusion with more sinister forces.
Unconfirmed reports said that the government had sacked security chiefs in the city within hours of the disaster and that air force planes and/or helicopters had been despatched from Cairo to bring back the bodies of the dead and the injured. The Muslim Brotherhood, largest parliamentary group after the recent elections, accused renegade members of the security forces of collusion in fomenting the violence. An emergency session of parliament was summoned to consider the disaster and the fall-out.
Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy said those killed in Port Said were victims of “systematic chaos”. He said: “What happened was black vengeance against the Al-Ahly Ultras because of their role in the revolution.”
The worst crowd disaster in Africa was in Accra, Ghana, on May 9, 2001 when 127 people died after a match between Ghana’s two most successful football teams which saw Accra’s Hearts of Oak Sporting Club beat visiting Asante Kotoko 2-1.
Angry Kotoko fans threw plastic seats and bottles onto the pitch and police fired tear gas in response provoking panic and a fatal stampede. Six police officers were later charged with 127 counts of manslaughter.
In Port Said sports authorities raised concerns about trouble ahead of the game because crowd trouble had marred the clubs’ meeting in the coastal city last season. Adding to the tension had been the recent appointment as coach by Al Masry of Hossam Hassan who had been involved in a touchline clash with Al-Ahly coach Manuel Jose last season when he was in charge of Zamalek.
Both Hossam Hassan and Al Ahly director Sayed Abdel-Hafiz had appealed for calm before the game.
Al-Ahly had started the game second in the table with 36 points, one behind surprise leaders Harras El-Hodoud. They held a four-point lead over Cairo rivals Zamalek, who have not won the league since 2004. The two clubs had been due to meet this coming weekend.
According to a report from Al-Ahram, Al-Masry fans stormed the pitch immediately after the final whistle, “chasing Ahly players and technical staff members who ran for their lives,”
Al-Ahly’s players phoned the club’s own television channel and radio staions to describe their fear amid the carnage and call for the authorities to intervene and protect them. Veteran playmaker Mohamed Abou-Treika told the club’s TV channel: “The security forces left us, they did not protect us. One fan has just died in the dressing room in front of me.”
Midfielder Mohamed Barakat added: “People have died, we are seeing corpses now. There are no security forces or army personnel to protect us. It is our fault because we played that match. The authorities are afraid to cancel the league because they just care about money, they do not care about the lives of people.”
Medhat El-Esnawy, the manager of Port Said’s El-Amiry hospital, said that bodies of the dead and dying had been brought to his emergency department having been killed in a stampede and having died of suffocation.
Later in the day, Zamalek’s league game against Ismaili in Cairo was called off following the end of the first half upon the request of both teams after the outer part of one of Cairo stadium’s four stands was set alight.
Samir Zaher, president of the Egyptian Football Association, announced that the league had been postponed indefinitely.
By Keir Radnedge