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.
What’s unclear from the Port Said prosecution file is why the police would be complicit in the deaths of fans. Nine officers are among the defendants, though none has been sentenced yet. Their fates, along with those of 45 other defendants, are expected to be learned March 9.
Video of the stampede shows that thousands were involved. But the prosecution file – based on interviews with fans of both teams, reporters at the game, stadium lighting experts and police, as well as autopsy reports and videos – suggests that what took place was closely planned in a meeting two days before the game. That meeting was attended by some of the 21 people who were sentenced to death last Saturday.
The prosecution noted that the rivalry between the teams dates back decades. In the years before Mubarak’s 2011 fall, the police anticipated possible violence and did things such as escorting Cairo fans out of Port Said and searching fans before they entered the stadium.
But none of those security measures were in place for the 2012 game, even though both teams’ “ultras” had begun making threats on their Facebook fan pages in the days before the match, the file said.
“Port Said is waiting for you with knives and pistols,” one of the messages read.
“If you are coming to Port Said, write your mother a will because you will die for sure,” read another.
In Port Said, a group of ultras sanctioned by the al Masry club, called Super Green, met to plot their attack on visiting al Ahly fans, the file alleges. They were led by a 21-year-old ultra named Mohammed Adel Mohammed, or Hummus, as he’s known among ultras and Port Said residents. In the case file and in Port Said, Hummus’ name is synonymous with the case. Calls for his release are painted on the exterior of the stadium.
“Defendants premeditated the killing of some of the Ahly club fans (ultras) to retaliate for previous disputes between them and to show off their strength. For this purpose, they used weapons (knives and sticks) and explosive materials, such as flames, and rocks and other items to assault people,” the file says.
The al Masry ultras began attacking even before the game, ambushing the al Ahly team at its hotel with rocks and insults. The taunting continued at the stadium, the file says, with several al Masry fans changing their clothes and weapons throughout the day to make it harder to identify them in security video.
Throughout, Port Said police “didn’t interfere in any way, which was seen on the videos,” the file says.
Port Said’s al Masry team won 3-1, an upset. As soon as the final whistle blew, the suspected al Masry ultras made their move toward the seating section reserved for al Ahly fans, the file alleges. They threw Molotov cocktails and began attacking the al Ahly partisans with bricks and chairs.
“Al Mando was seen taking a blade from his mouth on video,” the file claims, referring to one ultra by his nickname. Another, “Chocolate,” said he’d attended the planning but he denied being at the stadium. The leader, Hummus, admitted to throwing rocks at al Ahly fans, the prosecution alleges. Others told the prosecution that they saw him carrying Molotov cocktails, knives and sticks, as well.
As the melee was in full swing, the stadium lights went out.
Hummus’ father, Adel Mohammed, defends his son., saying he and Hummus had left the game before the stampede began. While he concedes that his son was at the planning meeting, he says his motives were innocent. The confession must have been coerced, he said.
The Super Green ultra meeting was “normal, and such groups are around all Egypt. They organize themselves and buy and design T-shirts to wear” to the games, Mohammed said. “They are all liars about Hummus carrying weapons. The proof is that each person charges him with carrying something different. What is he, Superman?”
The prosecution summary says several al Masry fans told investigators they’d noticed that one of the gates had been welded shut when they entered the stadium. They also thought it strange that no one was searching people for weapons.
One police officer, known as Defendant 70, had the keys to all the gates but couldn’t be found when the stampede began. According to the file, he kept changing the story behind his disappearance. At one point, he said he didn’t unlock the gate at the request of Defendant 64, another officer. He told someone else the crowds were too big for him to confront. For his part, Defendant 64 said he never gave such orders and couldn’t find his fellow officer when the attack began, the case file says.
“The prosecution found the keys with (Defendant 70) during the investigation. He said that he is the one who locked the doors, and he kept the keys with him until he handed them in to the prosecution. The prosecution made sure of that by trying the keys on the locks on Gates 2 and 3 and they opened the locks,” the summation says.
Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed Ali, a worker in the medical examiner’s office who was interviewed by the prosecution, examined some of the bodies and found that many died with skull fractures. Others died of suffocation.
Closed since then, the stadium appears much as it did after the stampede. The field is strewn with bricks and chairs, and dried blood can be seen near the gates. McClatchy found one exit still welded shut.
The new season is set to start this month. Egyptian officials have said all games will take place at military soccer fields, where troops can secure them – a lesson learned from what happened in Port Said.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.