The fight over the Port Said football narrative has already begun
It is a year to the day since the infamous camel charge during the Egyptian uprising. That day, Ultras from al-Ahly and Zamalek football clubs, along with many other Egyptians, fought in the streets against the regime. It is being claimed that the atmosphere in Cairo today is very much like the day after that camel charge. Yesterday’s events in Port Said, in which over 70 football supporters died, is therefore not just ‘another football tragedy’, however terrible it was. Rather, the disaster takes place in a context of heightened political tension over the state of post-Mubarak Egypt, and concerns about security, order and the pace of democratisiation. Outside observers should thus be wary of viewing events according to their own self-serving perspective.
What we know of the details so far is that crowds from the home end (al-Masry supporters) charged onto the pitch chasing and attacking Al-Ahly players and fans. In the ensuing chaos, scores died. The majority seem to have been trampled as they ran for an exit door which was bolted shut. Others fell or were thrown from the terraces. Some were killed as a result of direct attacks. According to reports, the security forces were at a loss to intervene.
The recriminations have already begun. Were the police criminally negligent? Did they callously allow the riot to happen; or maybe some elements in the crowd deliberately instigated the violence? Protests led by al-Ahly Ultras, with support from their great rivals Zamalek, have already taken place today, demanding retribution and calling for the downfall of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) and Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.
Whatever emerges in the following days – the country’s Football Association has already been dissolved; tear gas fired at protesters – UK commentators have already interpreted events according to Western prejudices about football violence. Divorcing the situation from its current political context, outside observers have portrayed the pitch invasion and riot as yet another instance of football crowds going wild. According to this view, crowds as inherently dangerous, with disasters such as Port Said accidents waiting to happen… should the proper safety and security arrangements not be in place. There have already been calls for a Fifa inquiry while commentators reprise the inane lament (inane because of the actual horror) that ‘football shouldn’t be like this’. Well, indeed.
But this ignores not just the political situation in Egypt today, but also the problem of always viewing football through the prism of insecurity and fear (and often, loathing). Such an approach often tends to make things worse. Taken to its conclusion, it results in the demonisation of football fans, wherein they are treated as animals to be coralled, lest another public order incident happens. This is the mentality at fault for disasters such as Hillsborough in 1989 in which 96 Liverpool supporters died as a result of being crowded in to what, effectively, were metal cages. It would be a mistake to simply treat Port Said as another in a long line of football disasters, in which lazy or corrupt officials fail to provide security. That would be to not only miss out on the general problem of the over-regulation of football supporters, but also to neglect the precise situation in Egypt today, and of the history of Egyptian football.
Football in Egypt has often seen violent confrontation between the hardcore supporters of clubs such as al-Ahly, Zamalek, Ismaily and al-Masry. And historically there was often a heavy security presence. During Mubarak’s rule, authoritarian dictatorship neutered political life. This meant that football support became a channel for the people’s public energies and loyalties at a time in which forms of political engagement were verboten. Hence the prominent role of football support in Egyptian society, and the intense passion and rivalry. Sporadic violence and hooliganism was a fact, whatever one’s view of it.
So what is different about yesterday’s events? Needless to say, the number of dead and injured is out of all proportion and stands out even in the sad history of stadium disasters. But the reactions to the riot are what is giving it its charged character, and this is due to the new socio-political situation in Egypt. Naturally, the events will be reacted to according to people’s pre-existing political concerns.
During the uprising last year, Ultras of rival clubs found themselves on the same side, fighting against the police and regime-hired ‘thugs’ on the streets. Following the disaster yesterday, a number of conspiratorial claims have been made. Ultras and protesters argue that Scaf allowed the violence happen, or even insist that it was pro-Mubarak or NDP thugs who instigated the violence. To some, this was payback for the role the Ultras played in Mubarak’s downfall. The broader suspicion is also there that disorder and chaos plays into Scaf’s hands, allowing them to slow the pace of transition.
But there is an opposing, more conservative tendency which holds the protesters responsible Egypt’s disorderly present. The security forces failed to prevent the tragedy, which coincides with other outbreaks of violence in Egypt today. The upshot is an implicit call for the maintenance or reinstatement of emergency powers for Egypt’s military rulers. Meanwhile, the largest party in the new parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has shadily hinted at the involvement of ‘foreign elements’ deliberately attempting to sow strife.
But as the author of the widely-read Arabist blog argued on twitter, Egyptians should avoid the temptation to jump to facile conspiracy theories and to lay direct responsibility for the tragedy directly at Scaf’s feet. Indeed, the authoritarian generals still pulling the srings in Egypt have enough grave accusations for which to be held to account. Throwing premature accusations at them does not help the protesters cause.
While it remains unclear where responsibility lies for this awful event, its importance cannot be overstated. For this is not simply an ‘accident’. Even the least accusatory interpretation – that it was a security failure – will give rise to a reaction from the Egyptian public which will not allow the event to be understood as simply ‘a tragedy’. The narrative of the Port Said disaster (some are calling it a massacre) is there to be fought over.
For those of us on the outside, we should not ignore this political aspect. Reading the events according to our own prejudices about hooligans or crowds only distorts the reality. The political context cannot be whitewashed; it is integral to the situation today. The refrain in response to other stadium disasters is always ‘some things are bigger than football’. For contemporary Egypt, the Port Said disaster really will be.Tagged in: Cairo, egypt, Hosni Mubarak, port said, Riots
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