CAIRO — The death sentence handed down to Adel Mohammed’s son on Saturday for his part in a riot last February that killed 74 soccer fans supposedly helped set off the latest round of deadly protests in Port Said, Egypt. But Mohammed believes the violence, which led to at least 38 deaths and 800 injuries over two days, was not about his son.
“The government has declared war on the citizens of Port Said, and we have to defend our city,” Mohammed said. “Being from Port Said now is an accusation.”
Magda Sayed, 58, a government employee, was on the opposite side of Saturday’s court ruling – her son was among the 74 who died at Port Said’s soccer stadium. She’s appalled by the violence.
“Do you think we destroyed and burned and killed when our children came back to us in body bags? ...We turned to the law,” she said by phone Sunday. “What is going on in Port Said is unjustified.”
In today’s Egypt, last year’s Port Said soccer riot and the punishments handed down Saturday for it have become yet another flashpoint in a divided nation where the inability of the national government to solve the nation’s woes becomes the subtext for every controversy – whether it played a role in the events or not. Families like Mohammed’s and Sayed’s, their lives already upended, must watch as the country descends into chaos in the name of protecting their interests.
On one side are opponents seeking to unseat Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, now just seven months into his five-year term. They cite what they say is his poor job performance – a record that has yet to resolve any of the problems Egypt confronts – a flailing economy, divisive politics and a lack of security.
On the other, are those who counsel patience – Morsi can be judged when he must stand for reelection.
Any event, no matter how unrelated to the president’s policies, can become a flashpoint. Then Morsi’s inability to control the resulting violence becomes yet another strike against him.
“I am sad I voted for Morsi,” Mohammed said.
In Port Said on Sunday, another six people were killed and more than 450 people injured while attending the funerals of the 32 who’d been killed Saturday – most, hospital officials said, by gunshots as protesters and police traded fire.
With no sign that the violence would fade, Morsi delivered a fiery speech late Sunday in which he ordered Port Said and two other provinces, Suez and Ismaliya, placed under a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. He said an emergency law that grants the military broad arrest powers will govern the three regions for the next 30 days.
He also said he’d scheduled a meeting for Monday with opposition leaders – another sign that whatever takes place in Egypt now is seen through the lens of anti-Morsi politics.
"I have said I am against any emergency measures but I have also said that if I must stop bloodshed and protect the people then I will act." Morsi said.
Stuck in the middle are people like Mohammed and Sayed, who are seeking basic forms of justice.
Mohammed said he wants someone to help get his son’s death sentence overturned. He said his son and the other 20 people sentenced to death Saturday are simply scapegoats for a failed government. He described them all as “kids.”
Meanwhile, Sayed calls those convicted, including Mohammed’s son, “thugs” who deserve the death penalty. She fears that the convictions will be overturned on appeal.
The dispute started with the Feb. 1, 2012, match between Port Said’s al Masry team and Cairo’s al Ahly team. Al Masry won in an upset, 3-1, and afterwards, fans stormed the field. A panic ensued, there was a stampede, thousands were crushed against locked doors, and 74 died, largely al Ahly supporters. It was the deadliest single sports-related melee in Egyptian history.
Mohammed, a middle school teacher, claims that his 21-year-old son, Mohammed, whose nickname is Hummus, wasn’t even in the stadium when the stampede began. He said he and his son were walking home after watching the game together, unaware of what had happened, even though the stampede began immediately after the referee blew the final whistle.
“Going to matches was my only outlet, and it is not the first time I went with my son. We used to go to matches together a lot,” Mohammed said. Hummus’s mother “used to send me with him to the matches to keep an eye on him.”
They watched the stampede unfold on their television sets, Mohammed said. But according to the defense case file obtained by McClatchy, a witness said he saw Hummus carrying a stick with the intention of beating a fan.
A week later, armed policemen surrounded the family apartment building and demanded to see Hummus, Mohammed said.
“They didn’t show us any documents from the prosecution. I told Hummus to go get dressed and go. I thought he would just be asked a few questions and come back soon. It’s been a year and he hasn’t come home,” Mohammed said.
According to the defense case file, the defendants are charged with attacking “the victims in the part dedicated for Al Ahly fans in the stadium by using knives, rocks and other tools … They threw victims from above and crammed them in the staircase and in the exit paths while aiming fireworks toward them in an attempt to kill them.”
When he first saw his son in jail, Hummus had been beaten so badly he couldn’t sit down, Mohammed said.
“He was expecting them [the government] to come apologize” for wrongly charging him, Mohammed said.
Hummus, like many of those charged, was an al Masry “ultra,” or supporter of the team. Ultras are members of an exclusive club that since the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have galvanized thousands on the streets, including after Saturday’s verdict, outraged that their members were branded killers. In addition, Hummus has a bachelor’s degree in commerce and worked as a taxi driver before his arrest.
Through his lawyers, who are affiliated with the al Masry ultras, Hummus said he is not guilty of premeditated murder, theft and intentionally damaging property.
The reasons behind Judge Sobhy Abdel-Maguid’s decision to include Hummus among the 21 sentenced to death are unknown. The prosecution sealed the details of the case. Another 54 defendants, including nine police commanders, are to be sentenced March 9.
Mohammed heard the verdict as it was read on live television and was stunned into silence. His wife screamed so much that she was taken to the hospital, where she remains.
Sayed, whose 22-year-old son was a senior engineering student at Cairo University and an al Ahly fan, said she felt mixed emotions.
“The case isn’t over yet. My joy is incomplete,” Sayed said. “I don’t know if I will live long enough to see it,” referring to the executions.
Mohammed, meanwhile, is hoping his son’s sentence will be overturned.
“Our kids were convicted together and they will be acquitted together,” he said.
But the constant protests, in the face of government’s promise of stability, have only increased his worries.
“How can I not be afraid when we have a president who goes back on his word every day?” he asked.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.
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