Friday saw another day of big protests and police repression in Egypt’s major cities. The protesters, who want the military to withdraw from politics and go back to the barracks, were galvanized by the soccer tragedy at Port Said on Wednesday, where some 74 persons were crushed in a stampede after local ultras (soccer hoodlums) supporting the al-Masri team attacked those cheering for Cairo’s al-Ahli team.
Ahli soccer rowdies had played a leading role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and I saw them lining up around Tahrir Square last summer to provide security to a second round of protests. Ultras had often fought police after games, and used that experience during the revolution. Those in Egypt’s dissident movement already predisposed to see the military and police as holdovers of the Mubarak regime darkly suspected that police in Port Said had their own thugs target Ahli ultras in an act of revenge.
Even level-headed Egyptian authorities, such as judges in the judiciary, took this theory seriously enough to forbid the head of the Egyptian soccer federation to travel abroad, along with the governor of Port Said.
You can’t really understand the Arab world unless you appreciate the importance of what Americans call soccer (in most parts of the world it is just “football”). The first thing people ask me in Egypt once they discover that I speak Arabic is not where I am from or what I do, but if I am a supporter of the Ahli team or the Zamalik one. (I’ve lived on the island of Zamalik and, despite the opprobrium it will bring me in some circles, admit to being a Zamalikawi). People are passionate about their soccer. Enthusiasm for the game has helped them get through a very difficult year with a bad economy. And, young soccer enthusiasts are shock troops of popular street movements.
Among Friday’s big protests was one at the Ministery of Interior building in Cairo, the HQ of the state security police and a center under the old regime of torture and arbitrary imprisonment and punishment. At one point it was reported that police and military had been forced to abandon the Cairo television station, but the station denied that report.
Large numbers of protesters, in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere, were injured or sickened by military-grade tear gas deployed by police and security forces. In one incident, the wind shifted and blew the tear gas back at the police, which crowds saw as divine intervention. They shouted triumphantly, “God is Great!” A protester and an officer were said to have been killed.
The Arabic press is reporting that angry crowds threw stones at the HQ of the security policy in Suez, and wire services say two were killed there.
Ironically, Egypt’s generals may ultimately be brought down not by civil libertarians or Muslim fundamentalists but by young soccer fanatics. That wouldn’t be an entirely new phenomenon in Egyptian history. An earlier generation of Ahli ultras played a role in anti-British agitations that led to Egypt’s independence.