Egyptian protesters blame police for soccer deaths

MAGGIE MICHAEL SARAH EL DEEB Associated Press Published:

CAIRO (AP) -- Security forces clashed Thursday with stone-throwing protesters enraged by the failure of police to prevent a soccer riot that killed 74 people, as sports violence spiraled into a new political crisis for Egypt.

The deaths Wednesday night in a post-match stadium riot in the Mediterranean city of Port Said fueled anger at Egypt's ruling military and the already widely distrusted police forces. Many in the public and in the newly elected parliament blamed the leadership for letting it happen -- whether from a lack of control or, as some alleged, on purpose.

Survivors of the riot described a nightmarish scene in the stadium. Police stood by doing nothing, they said, as fans of the winning home team, Al-Masry, attacked supporters of the top Cairo club, Al-Ahly, stabbing them and throwing them off bleachers.

A narrow exit corridor turned into a death trap as crowds of fans fled into it, only to be crushed against a locked gate as their rivals attacked them from behind.

A network of zealous Al-Ahly soccer fans known as Ultras vowed vengeance, accusing the police of intentionally letting rivals attack them because they have been among the most aggressive of Egypt's revolutionaries. Ultras were at the forefront of the anti-government uprising -- first against toppled leader Hosni Mubarak a year ago and now against the military that took his place in power.

"Either they will die or we will die," one Ultra said, referring to the police, as he joined a march by some 10,000 people on the Cairo headquarters of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the security forces. He would only give his first name, Islam, for fear of reprisal by police.

The march turned into a call for the ruling military council of generals, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to surrender power.

"Say it out loud, the council must leave!" the marchers chanted, shouting to people in residential buildings along the way. "Get down from your balconies, Tantawi killed your children!"

The military has faced protests for months led by secular and liberal youth groups demanding an end to its rule -- and the soccer riot added to criticism that the generals have mismanaged the transition from Mubarak's rule. Opponents accuse the generals of being as autocratic as the ousted president and of preserving much of his regime. They say elements in the police and former regime figures have been working behind the scenes to undermine the revolution and prevent real change.

"We dreamed of change. They fooled us and brought us a field marshal instead," protesters chanted Thursday as they reached the Interior Ministry, near Tahrir Square. Some called for the execution of the military rulers. Many raised flags of the Al-Ahly club and Zamalek, another top Cairo team with its own group of Ultras.

The crowds approached the ministry from multiple sides. Some tried to dismantle walls of large concrete blocks that had been erected on streets leading to the ministry after November clashes. Others tore away barbed wire barriers.

Protesters hurled stones at lines of riot police, who responded with heavy barrages of tear gas that sent the crowd scattering, some passing out and falling. Protesters set tires on fire, sending up black smoke as motorcyclists ferried away the injured. One young man who climbed atop a traffic light waving a flag was unmoved even as he was engulfed in a cloud of gas.

"We are just across the street from the ministry," said one protester, Taha Mahfouz, wearing a helmet and waving a club that he had taken from riot police. "They can't protect their own stuff. How can they protect the country?"

The Health Ministry said 388 protesters were injured, most overcome by gas.

In an emergency session of parliament, several lawmakers said the police failure to stop the rioting was intentional, aimed at stoking insecurity since Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11, 2011. The aim, they said, was to create instability to justify maintaining strict emergency laws.

"This is a complete crime," said Abbas Mekhimar, head of parliament's defense committee. "This is part of the scenario of fueling chaos against Egypt."

Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri told parliament he had dissolved the Egyptian Soccer Federation's board and referred its members for questioning by prosecutors about the violence. He also said the governor of Port Said province and the area's police chief have resigned.

Tantawi told reporters Wednesday that the country's transition will not be derailed by the violence.

"Egypt is going down the path we planned," he said. "We will continue down this path and we will get through this transition."

Security officials said 47 people were arrested in Port Said. Ismail el-Iskandarani, a researcher with the private group Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who was in Port Said, said 17 of the dead remain unidentified and at least three of those killed were residents of Port Said, and not Al-Ahly sports fans.

The soccer violence -- the world's deadliest in 15 years -- began when Al-Masry pulled out a surprise 3-1 victory over Al-Ahly, Egypt's most powerful club. Al-Masry fans stormed the field, rushing past lines of police to attack Al-Ahly's Ultras.

"I saw death with my own eyes. I saw people take their last breath," said Samir Saad, a 27-year old Al-Ahly fan who was stabbed in the leg as he fled into the stands. "The security opened the doors for Al-Masry fans and closed (them) in our face."

Others reported Al-Ahly fans being thrown from the stands or jumping to escape. Some said Al-Masry supporters carved the words "Port Said" into the bodies of stricken fans.

Authorities shut off the stadium lights, plunging it into darkness. In the exit corridor, the fleeing crowd pressed against a chained gate until it broke open.

"Everyone was pushing. Under me were more than three people and I am being pushed. Everyone is pushing trying to breathe," said Mahmoud Ibrahim, who was trapped in the corridor. He spoke at Cairo's main morgue where many of the dead were taken, including two of his friends.

There was bad blood between the two teams even before the match, and many were itching for a fight. Early in the game, Ultras raised a banner reading, "Port Said is a garbage city and has no men," before it was quickly taken down.

Ultras accused police of failing to do the usual searches for weapons, and witnesses reported fans in the Al-Masry stands had clubs and knives. El-Iskandarani, the rights worker investigating the violence, said witnesses reported that some of those carrying knives were known locally as thugs-for-hire.

Pedro Barny, a Portuguese assistant to Al-Ahly coach Manuel Jose, complained of a lack of security as the tensions mounted during the game.

"The atmosphere was very aggressive. It was very intimidating for our team," Barny told Radiotelevisao Portuguesa. "There were opposition fans walking up and down unchallenged in front of our bench during the game and the police did nothing."

He said there was a charge across pitch toward the Al-Ahly fans that collided with the players and coaches. "I ran and ran to get away from it."

He said he was punched and kicked as he sprinted for the tunnel.

The Ultras are among Egypt's rowdiest fans and are proud of their hatred for the police, who were the backbone of Mubarak's authoritarian rule. During matches, they are known for their obscenity-laced anti-police songs and chants, which usually go viral on the Internet, an expression of the hatred many Egyptians feel toward the security forces.

The network is highly organized across the country, but they were long apolitical, resenting the police for friction at soccer matches. When the uprising began, the Ultras used their years of experience in clashing with police at stadiums to help defend protesters against attacks by security forces and regime supporters.

After Mubarak's fall, they joined protests against the military, and in November and December, they fought back against troops cracking down on demonstrations in clashes that left dozens dead. Ironically, the revolution has united the Ultra backers of the Al-Ahly and Zamalek clubs, the country's most bitter soccer rivalry.

Ahmad Saqqar, a 22-year-old Ultra wearing a red Al-Ahly shirt, said the Ultras are "all about resisting police suppression."

"The military plotted yesterday to take revenge on us," he said. "We know how to respond ... after we recover from our wounds."

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Associated Press Writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.