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Is Egypt Growing Increasingly Violent?

74 deaths at a football match and subsequent clashes suggest violence may be rising during Egypt's transition.
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Waiting for it to kick off: Al Masry Ultras protesting in Cairo days after 74 were killed after a football match. Photograph by Jonathan Rashad.

Protesters gathered outside the general prosecutor’s office in Cairo yesterday to demand that those responsible for the Port Said football violence that left 74 dead are brought to justice.

At the Port Said football match on February 2, spectators in the home stands of the Al Masry football club stormed onto the pitch and attacked fans and players from the visiting Al Ahly team. Many blame the security forces who failed to intervene, and the event provoked a spate of protests and clashes between security forces and angry activists.

Al Masry and Al Ahly football clubs have a long standing rivalry and there is normally a large police presence at matches between these two teams. But on this occasion, the understaffed security forces failed to step in, either because of strategic negligence or, potentially, because Egypt’s police force, which is poorly trained and thinly stretched across Egypt’s major cities, is demoralised after months of clashes with protesters.

Whatever the reasons behind the football violence, this increasingly common cycle in Egypt of civilian death triggering protest and often violent clashes between opposing political factions suggests the country’s political transition is becoming increasingly violent.

A highly politicised situation

Following the tragic events at Port Said, different political factions have presented the situation from a variety of perspectives, and narratives explaining what happened at the stadium have become highly politicised. Think Africa Press spoke to Ahmed Naguib, an activist who has been prominent in the Tahrir Square protests against Egypt’s military rulers. Naguib explained that the consensus amongst the activists in Tahrir Square is that the violence at the Port Said football match was deliberately invoked by the SCAF military council as an attack on the Al Ahly Ultras, who are staunch opponents of Egypt’s military elite.

Rumours have spread that thugs armed with knives and batons were allowed into the stadium by the security forces, who then strategically decided not to police the crowd during the match. Naguib made a clear distinction between the Ultras, a group of passionate football fans who are much respected by activists for their integral role in the Tahrir Square protests, and the thugs who started the violence which led to the deaths of 74 Egyptians. The latter, he argues, were gang members sponsored by the security forces and have links to the former Mubarak regime. He suggested that the ministry of interior “has around 200,000 thugs in their pay, and extensive networks among many criminal gangs”, adding that these “hooligans” were nothing to do with the Ultras.

Pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood

The Port Said violence has put the recently-elected parliament, particularly the dominant Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a difficult situation. Activists protesting against the military in Tahrir Square have demanded that the military council hand over power as soon as possible, but the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm are nervous about jeopardising its relationship with the military and souring negotiations over the future balance of power in Egypt.

An investigative panel appointed by parliament placed most of the blame for the incident at the feet of the security forces, recognising that their negligence, whether strategic or otherwise, led directly to the deaths of 74 Egyptian citizens. It did not go so far as to say that the riot was deliberately organised by the security forces but suggested that the riot was instigated by a mixture of Al Masry Ultras and “outlaws”, and called for an investigation into the possibility that the violence was deliberately planned by supporters of former president Hosni Mubarak.

A distorted political narrative

The negligence of the security forces evidently makes them culpable for the appallingly high death toll, but this kind of uncontrolled crowd violence is hard to orchestrate. Accusations that the Military Council incited violence at the football game in order to create further civil strife within Egypt and impress upon citizens the important role that security forces play in maintaining stability, have little credibility.

As the Supreme Council for Armed Forces is still nominally in charge of national security, scenes like these discredit the ruling military government more than any other political faction. The debate over who is responsible for the situation has been politicised and appropriated by different political factions to suite their own political agendas.

What the violence at Port Said and the resultant protests in Cairo clearly demonstrate is that the ruling military council is rapidly losing its legitimacy to rule as well as its hold on national security. The Port Said tragedy speaks volumes about the military elite’s inability to create a secure democracy in Egypt, but imagining that every incidence of civil unrest is caused by their deliberate machinations reduces a very complex situation to a severely over-simplistic formula.

Frustrated political hopes

Dr Ibrahim Saif, analyst for the Carnegie think tank in Beirut, told Think Africa Press that he thought “the riots at the Port Said football match were caused by regional rather than political tensions”. He suggested that those responsible for the violence could not be clearly identified, explaining that “due to the confused nature of the situation, it is impossible to pigeonhole the instigators as former Mubarak supporters, Al Masry Ultras or gang members with other allegiances”.

Nonetheless, Saif did feel that Egypt’s current political situation has contributed to the escalating instances of violence in the country. “People feel very frustrated with the lack of political progress,” he commented, adding “Egyptians feel that many of the hopes they held following the regime change in February 2011 have been disappointed, and this has increased tensions within the country”. “We may see more instances of violence like this before the political transition is complete”, he warned.

Social and political divides deepen within Egypt

Removing the military elite from their current position is a crucial first step in establishing a peaceful democratic state in Egypt. However, the deep divisions within Egypt’s society have come to the fore over the last few weeks. Pro-democracy activists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters clashed outside the parliament on its opening day and in the north Salafists have been trying to evict Coptic Christians from a village near Alexandria.

Deposing the military elite will not automatically heal the other rifts within Egyptian society, which is why it is dangerous to reduce every instance of civil unrest, such as the riot at the Port Said football match, to the simplicity of a revolutionary narrative, in which the military elite are the source of all Egypt’s problems.

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