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Egypt's political tensions highlight historical rift between Cairo, Port Said

Domestic politics have combined with Egypt's charged football scene to aggravate deep-seated animosities between Port Said and capital Cairo – with potentially explosive consequences

Sherif Tarek in Port Said, Hatem Maher, Saturday 16 Feb 2013
Port Said
Egyptian protesters clash with police, unseen, in Port Said, Egypt, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013 (Photo: AP)
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Views: 4755

Despite an illustrious history of wartime heroics, Egypt's city of Port Said had for over a decade suffered negligence and discrimination under the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, according to leading figures in the now-peaceful – yet still tense – canal city.

"Muslim Brotherhood rule," many say, has brought yet more injustice, leaving Port Said on the edge in Egypt's current period of political turmoil.

With Egypt suffering mounting political and economic instability in the two years since its 2011 revolution, Port Said has had to face its own unique challenges since the city's infamous stadium disaster last year.

That incident saw the city's home fans assault their Cairo counterparts – fans of the rival Ahly football club – following a league match. At least 72 of the latter were killed in the ensuing bloodshed.

Egypt's 'football massacre' left Port Said reeling under an unofficial boycott – economic and social – and thus a profound sense of isolation.

The most dangerous consequence, however, came this year, when 21 Port Said residents were slapped with death sentences on 26 January for their involvement in the tragedy – a verdict that plunged the city into a further state of disarray.

The court rulings led to days of bloody clashes between angry protesters and police, resulting in the death of more than 40 people, mostly civilians.

While the disturbances have since subsided, tensions within Port Said remain palpable.

Collective punishment?

The recent violence took its toll on several buildings, including Port Said's main prison, where the 21 recipients of the death sentences were being held, and which represented the epicentre of the violence.

The exterior of the facility, which is guarded by military personnel, is now riddled with bullet holes and stained with the blood of a low-ranking policeman who was shot dead near its entrance.

Military personnel have been deployed in Port Said since a curfew was imposed last month on Egypt's canal cities (Port Said, Suez and Ismailia) by President Mohamed Morsi.

Tanks, armoured vehicles and barbed wire are now in evidence, along with soldiers stationed at the city's entrance.

Meanwhile, business in the beleaguered city's once-thriving commercial district has slowed substantially, while fewer tourists – Egyptian and foreign – are coming to visit.

The economic stagnation and resultant malaise can be seen in the faces of the city's residents.

Among them is former leftist MP Badry Fargaly, a regular of 'Samara,' a spit-and-sawdust cafeteria locally known for its highly politicised clientele.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Fargaly gave his perspective on the current situation in Port Said, articulating the "bitterness" felt by most locals.

"Port Said has been subject to collective punishment since the stadium incident," Fargaly said in his trademark deep voice. These sentiments were echoed by several of his followers, who surrounded him during the interview.

"Police opened fire on civilians, injuring hundreds and killing over 40," the ageing chain smoker recounted.

"Then the city was humiliated further by the president's decision to impose a curfew [that currently extends from 1am to 5am], which residents immediately defied by hitting the streets en masse."

He added: "This series of collective punishments remains ongoing, with hatred increasing on a daily basis."

Fargaly believes – like many other Port Said residents – that Mubarak had turned Port Said into a 'pariah city' after a local man allegedly tried to assassinate him during a brief visit to the city in 1999.

Mubarak never visited the city again and Port Said's duty-free trade zone, established in the 1970s at the start of late President Sadat's open-door economic policy, was deactivated shortly afterwards, leading to major financial losses for the municipality.

"Mubarak saw Port Said as an enemy after that incident," Fargaly said.

"Afterwards, it was sanctioned politically and economically, while state authorities refused to allocate enough funds for the city's infrastructure, while the free zone was suspended one year later. Now the Muslim Brotherhood [from which President Morsi hails] is following suit."

Fargaly went on to say of the Islamist group: "They are incapable and incompetent; they cannot rule or manage a village. They promised to 'bring goodness to Egypt' in their presidential election campaign, but have not changed any of Mubarak's policies."

"On the contrary, things are getting worse. We're suffering constant injustice despite Port Said's glory."

A history of wartime heroism

Port Said bore the brunt of four different wars with Israel and western powers: the 1956 Suez War with France, England and Israel; the 1967 Six Day War with Israel; the War of Attrition with Israel between 1967-1973; and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. All these wars led to massive displacements and death among city residents.

The city's "historic sacrifices" were cited by Anwar Al-Sadat – Mubarak's predecessor – when he established the Port Said Free Zone as a reward for the city's wartime travails.

Mohamed Yosri Omara, one of the city's 1973 war icons, lamented Port Said's current "unenviable" situation.

Unlike Fargaly, Omara blamed recent unrest on Port Said residents rather than the authorities, saying the city was in better condition during Egypt's last war with Israel than it was today.

"At least people used to stand by each other despite the crippled economy," Omara said. "It's nothing like what's happening now; Port Said residents are the ones responsible for what it has come to."

Omara added that city residents boasted of their many firearms, castigating them for "assaulting police and wreaking havoc."

"Many locals are also involved in smuggling and illegal activities. It's hard for a decent man to live in Port Said these days under such circumstances," Omara went on.

"There are many armed thugs in the city and they responsible for the blood shed in last month's clashes with police."

In this regard, Omara added, "Morsi and the Brotherhood are completely helpless; they did nothing to help Port Said."

Omara also holds Port Said locals somewhat responsible for last year's football stadium carnage. "Even if they did not kill [rival fans] intentionally, Port Said was hosting the football match and, by default, home fans should be responsible for visitors' safety."

The football factor

Wars and politics aside, a fierce football rivalry has also frequently stoked tensions between Port Said and Cairo.

While the world's most popular spectator sport usually gives Egypt's working classes a chance to relax, recent years have seen emotions running particularly high, thanks to the emergence of high-octane 'Ultras' fan groups.

The reception that Cairo's Ahly football team used to receive on its visits to the canal cities was often hostile.

The team's bus would be frequently pelted with stones, and on several occasions had to be escorted from matches by armoured police vehicles.

Only a few months before last year's stadium disaster, the army had to intervene to contain clashes between Ahly fans and supporters of Port Said's Masry club ahead of a contentious league match.

For some astute observers, the incident raised alarm bells.

Tragedy finally struck the city in earnest on 1 February of last year, when – only minutes before the end of a particularly ill-tempered league match – thousands of Masry fans chanted in unison: "You're protected by the government; We're going to f*** you after the match."

They were referring to visiting Ahly fans, who responded by hurling firecrackers into the Masry stands.

Remarkably lax stadium security then allowed Masry fans to invade the pitch and confront their rivals head on.

Some died in the ensuing stampede; others were killed by being thrown from the stands or being beaten to death, according to witnesses and government prosecutors.

'Purely political'

"The origins of the Masry-Ahly rivalry are purely political," sports critic Alaa Sadek, author of several books on the history of Egyptian football, told Ahram Online.

"In the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Ahly team chairmen were often government ministers, even prime ministers. For Masry, Ahly represented the authority of the state."

"However, the rise in tensions in recent years can be attributed mainly to football," he added. "It's the natural hatred and envy of the champion – Ahly in this case – that exists everywhere."

Ahly, the most successful and popular club in Egypt and the African continent, enjoy an enormous fan-base and a trophy-laden cabinet, which has traditionally made their more modest Egyptian opponents green with envy.

What's more, the club's financial resources have allowed it to attract top footballers over the years, depriving other teams of their best players and ensuring that its own domestic supremacy remained intact – practices which have only rubbed salt in the wound.

"Ahly has a tradition of poaching players from canal city clubs, such as Masry and Ismaily," Ibrahim El-Masry, a prominent Masry star in the 1990s and one-time international footballer, told Ahram Online.

"That's why there's such a tense rivalry between these outfits and the Cairo giants."

"It's Ahly, with its financial muscle and favoured status with the Egyptian Football Association, that always wins league titles and other competitions," El-Masry added.

"Meanwhile, clubs like Masry and Ismaily hope – usually in vain – to please their fans with any trophy. To them, beating Ahly is like a trophy unto itself."

Since the recent violence in Port Said, the famed El-Masry has become a spokesman for the families of those Port Said residents sentenced to death, those accused of attempting to storm Port Said's prison, and those who were injured in the ensuing mayhem.

After having once played against Ahly – derisively dubbed the 'state's club' by rival fans – El-Masry now stands against the state itself, articulating the demands of those he represents.

Those demands, he says, include: formally designating Port Said residents killed by police on 26 January as 'martyrs of the revolution'; a new investigation into the stadium disaster ("because those who were sentenced are not actually guilty," he maintains); and dismissal of Egypt's interior minister for allegedly condoning police brutality.

El-Masry went on to warn against secessionist sentiments, currently heard with increasing frequency, saying that recent events had already served to "cut Port Said off from the rest of Egypt."

"The latest events have served to bring Port Said residents closer together, but I'm afraid they will eventually lead them to hate the rest of the country," the ex-footballer stated.

"All of Egypt seems to detest Port Said. People here are already fed up; they feel thoroughly alienated from the rest of Egypt."

"If our demands aren't met, there will be a catastrophe," El-Masry added with emotion, referring to the prospect of more violence next month, when a court is scheduled to decide the fate of the rest of the defendants in the case.

"If charged police are acquitted – and only Port Said's civilian residents are slapped with harsh sentences – there will be more bloodshed."

On 9 March, the remaining 52 defendants – including nine security personnel, three Masry football club officials and a number of Masry fans – will be found guilty or not guilty for their suspected roles in the tragedy.

Security men stand accused of facilitating home fans' attack on members of Ahly's Ultras fan group – as punishment, some say, for the latter's role in Egypt's 2011 revolution.

Additional reporting by Mohamed Nada, Eslam Omar and Karim Hafez

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