Fury over soccer deaths leads to new clashes, threats to Egypt's government

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 2, 2012 

CAIRO _ Thousands of angry sports fans besieged the Egyptian Interior Ministry on Thursday to avenge 74 deaths in riots over a soccer match the previous night, as political forces seized on the tragedy to renew demands for the ouster of the military-appointed interim government. As Egypt declared three days of mourning for the victims of the riots, many of the country's senior political figures issued a joint statement saying that the mayhem that erupted Wednesday night following the popular Al Ahly team's loss to a rival squad was the result of official negligence.

Tearful soccer fans and their sympathizers tore down part of a security barrier outside the Interior Ministry and lobbed rocks at riot police in clashes that continued well into the night. Authorities responded with volleys of tear gas in scenes reminiscent of heavy fighting in November. By late evening, the Health Ministry said, more than 100 people were wounded.

"We either die like them or we avenge them!" the protesters chanted as they tore through barbed wire and concrete blocks sealing off the ministry in downtown Cairo.

The fury on display Thursday reflected how deeply the previous day's melee has shaken ordinary Egyptians, who expressed sympathy for the victims' families and anger over the lack of security since the collapse of former President Hosni Mubarak's police state. Wednesday's riots were the single deadliest incident since Mubarak's resignation last year, and blame immediately was directed at the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its transitional Cabinet.

At least 74 people died and 388 were wounded Wednesday night, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry, in clashes among opposing fans that began after Ahly's loss to the home team in Port Said, a commercial hub about 140 miles northeast of Cairo. Video footage showed young men attacking one another with rocks, blades and pipes. Witnesses said that a locker room was used as a morgue.

Doctors said that hundreds more may have been injured and uncounted, as many of the wounded didn't seek medical treatment and fled the scene.

Survivors who joined Thursday's march decried the government's perceived negligence in the incident. Video footage from Wednesday's match showed security forces standing by as the clashes raged.

"I couldn't believe that I was alive until I reached Cairo," said Hassan Ali, 55, who said he carried his son on his shoulders as they escaped the scene in Port Said and traveled back to the capital.

"There was security, yes, but they didn't do anything," Ali said. "There were all types of light weapons you can imagine."

The military council went into damage-control mode, sending military planes to transport wounded fans and players to safety. One satellite channel reported that the council's chief, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, personally received the shaken passengers upon arrival at a military landing strip in Cairo.

Tantawi, speaking in a rare phone call to Ahly's TV channel, promised that the government would make arrests in the case and would provide compensation to families of the dead and wounded.

"If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt, he will not succeed," Tantawi said. "Everyone will get what they deserve."

The military council said that an investigating committee would be formed "to find out the truth behind the unfortunate incident and bring the culprits to justice," according to a statement on its official Facebook page. The council tried to defuse the public outrage, reiterating its commitment to transfer power to an elected civilian government.

"Some began to imagine that the Supreme Council plans these events to declare martial law and stay in power and, unfortunately, some politicians, activists and journalists have gathered behind these fantasies," the statement said. "We say there is no going back and we will not retreat from the path of democracy."

None of those actions seemed enough to shield the council from a brewing movement in Parliament to bring down the generals' Cabinet.

The newly elected legislature convened a televised emergency session, believed to be its first in four decades, during which member after member lashed out at transitional authorities for failing to stop Egypt's worst sports disaster in memory.

A group of senior politicians _ minus the most influential faction, the Muslim Brotherhood _ had called earlier for Parliament to issue a no-confidence vote in the military's handpicked prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, and to replace his Cabinet with a "revolutionary" council, according to Egyptian news reports.

However, that plan was scuttled because transitional laws don't allow any entity except the military council to dissolve the Cabinet. Instead, legislators voted to launch their own investigation and to file a formal complaint against the interior minister.

Ganzouri was present in the Parliament session and told the assembly that he'd accepted the resignations of several public officials implicated in the security lapse, including the national soccer association's director and Port Said's governor, mayor and security chief.

The lawmakers vowed to continue their push for the military to hand over power to a civilian authority earlier than its scheduled goal of July.

"The military council should be accountable. Dismissing the governor and the head of security is not sufficient because, at the end of the day, the military is the one who will appoint new ones," Essam Sultan, a lawmaker from the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, told Parliament.

"The junta should be held accountable, and if they don't want to be, then they should let the assembly form a (unity) government to hold them accountable," Sultan said.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose political party won nearly half the seats in the parliamentary elections, issued separate statements on its website and through its Freedom and Justice Party, blaming the military council and the Interior Ministry for negligence in securing the Port Said stadium. One senior Brotherhood figure called the incident "a real massacre," while others openly called for the dismissal of the interior minister after a recent spike in bank robberies, kidnappings and other crimes.

The Brotherhood statements also portrayed the authorities' alleged failure to intervene in the riots as part of a revenge campaign against protesters who upset the luxurious lifestyles of Mubarak's security chiefs and business cronies. The Brotherhood's political party said the post-uprising instability was "the handiwork of domestic parties and dubious forces that still have strong ties with the former regime."

Egypt's notoriously rowdy soccer fans, known as ultras, were a significant component of the anti-Mubarak revolutionary forces in Tahrir Square. They set aside their deep-seated club rivalries and the young fans-turned-protesters fought off police attacks together during the uprising.

"The ultras' fearlessness coupled with their record of years of hostility towards the police increasingly drew thousands of disaffected, less educated and often unemployed youth whose political thinking was less sharply defined and who bear a deep-seated grudge against the police for the violence and abuse they suffered in years of clashes in the stadiums," wrote James M. Dorsey, a Singapore-based foreign affairs commentator, in a posting about Wednesday's incident on his blog, "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer."

Families of the dead and wounded ultras gathered outside the Zeinhom morgue in Cairo. Women dressed in black cried or broke into hysterical screams as they awaited news of their missing sons.

The father of Ahmed Ismail, a 23-year-old Ahly fan who was killed Wednesday, wailed as five men pulled his son's body from his arms to prepare it for burial.

"My son! Keep me with my son!" the father screamed. (Al Desoukie is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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