Port Said Prison was a scene of chaos. Blood was splattered on the floor. Bullets were flying and fumes from Molotov cocktails filled the air.
Two policemen were the first to die in the violence. A judge announced that 21 Port Said locals would receive the death penalty for their role in last year's Port Said stadium disaster. Minutes later, all hell broke loose.
“Right after the verdict was read, the prison was attacked by a barrage of gunfire from all directions. Two policemen were shot dead, so we armed the Central Security Forces (CSF) with the prison’s weapons to defend themselves and the prison,” a high-ranking figure from the Egyptian Interior Ministry told Ahram Online inside Port Said prison, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Port Said Prison after bloody clashes, 7 Feb. 2013 (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
It was the end of a difficult year for the people of Port Said. On 1 February, 2012, violent clashes erupted after a league game between fans of the local Masry football club and supporters of the Cairo-based Ahly.
The clashes left 72 Ahly fans dead. Following the deadly game, 73 Port Said locals, including nine security officials and three Masry football club officials, were put on trial. The death sentences, which were announced on 26 January of this year, left the city reeling.
“We died three times; firstly when guests died in our city, secondly when our innocent sons received death penalties, and thirdly when we were killed treacherously,” said the father of Mohamed ‘Hommos’ Adel Shehata, a leader of hardcore Masry fan group the Ultras Super Green, who was one of the defendants who received the death penalty.
Father of Hommos, founder of the Ultras Super Green who received death penalty (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
On the day of the verdict, which was eagerly awaited by Ahly fans to “bring relief to the mothers of the martyrs,” clashes erupted throughout the city of Port Said, leaving more than 40 people dead and around 1,400 injured. At least 120 of the injured are suffering from serious injuries as a result of the attacks, according to the local hospitals' records.
“They died from suffocation and we died by treachery,” read many signs across the streets of Port Said.
Inside the prison
Port Said Prison bore the brunt of this rage. It is not yet clear who was behind the attack, which took place as soon as the verdicts were announced.
Walking around the prison, it’s obvious that an ugly massacre happened there. Heavy police and military security surrounds the area, gunshots marks are visible all over the prison’s walls and buildings, and there are blood stains on the floor.
Heavy security around Port Said Prison, 7 Feb 2013 (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
“We were listening to the sentence on the radio next to the prison when suddenly we were surprised by a hail of gunfire,” said Ibrahim El-Masry, a former Masry and Egypt footballer who has been advocating for the rights of the men on trial and for Port Said residents injured in recent clashes.
The families of the detained had been waiting, with El-Masry, next to the prison, some hopeful for good news. The announcement of mass death penalties was a shock.
The police tell a similar story; that they too were taken by surprise at the sudden burst of fire at the prison after the verdicts were announced.
We were “surprised by the gunfire barrage” said one experienced policeman to Ahram Online, adding that “the CSF unit sent from Cairo to secure the area around the prison on the day of the verdict didn’t have any sort of arms except tear gas bombs. Orders were given to immediately arm them with the prison’s weapons to protect themselves and the vital facility.”
Remnants of policeman burned blood on front of Port Said prison (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
Ahmed El-Balky, a CSF captain, had been sent by the interior ministry along with a number of colleagues to secure Port Said prison after hundreds protested angrily outside it in the week before the verdicts were announced, when rumours spread that the detained men would be transferred to Cairo.
Families of the detained youngsters were worried, not because of the sentence, but because of the threats of hardcore Ahly fans, the Ultras Ahlawy, to “get revenge themselves” if the verdict didn’t satisfy them.
“In an attempt to disperse protesters, El-Balky climbed this watchtower to shoot a tear gas bomb that didn’t really go past the prison’s walls,” said a leader inside Port Said prison, pointing to bloodstains on the ground.
Buildings near to the prison marked by bullets (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
“When a gunman shot him from one of the buildings around the prison, his colleagues weren’t immediately able to carry his dead body away, because of the continuing gunfire,” the policeman said. “He was a good young man. He is the real martyr.”
All eye-witnesses Ahram Online spoke to agreed that El-Balky and his colleague were the first two people to be shot, but accounts varied as to who the snipers were. Ahram Online contacted the captain’s family but they declined to speak to the media.
Ibrahim El-Masry, former footballer, a representative of Port Said victims (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
“Yes, the two policemen died first, but we all know who did that,” said El-Masry, referring to the security authorities. “No one has access to the roofs of the buildings around the prison apart from the police. They and they only have the keys for them, as they clearly threaten the building’s security.”
'No house without grief'
“There is a feeling around the city that Port Said as a whole is under some sort of mass punishment. This verdict was obviously politicised,” says El-Badry Farghaly, a former local MP and a well-known leader of leftist political party Al-Tagammo.
”I am against conspiracy theories but at the same time I say that what is happening to Port Said is all premeditated,” Farghaly told Ahram Online.
Port Said's former MP El-Badry Farghaly (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi appeared on national television a day later, on 27 January, declaring a 30-day state of emergency in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia.
The exceptional procedures didn’t stop the clashes, or ease the tension between the different sides, but they did create a feeling of isolation among locals.
Violence continued sporadically over the next week, not only next to the prison but also at the El-Arab and El-Sharq police stations, at the local police sports club, and at the funerals of those killed, when unknown men on motorcycles would shoot dead mourners walking in funeral processions in the street.
“Port Said had three days of funerals. We go to bury martyrs, then other martyrs killed in the funeral processions themselves,” El-Masry said.
“Gunmen tried to raid El-Arab police station in an attempt to make us leave our positions for days,” said a policeman who was at El-Arab, the city's main police station, during the violence.
“If El-Arab police station were to surrender, forget about security in Port Said for a long time. They wanted us to leave our positions to cause chaos. It’s our home. We will die here if we have to,” said another policeman.
Port Said's El-Arab police station after bloody clashes, 7 Feb 2013 (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
“Two police cars roamed around the stations shooting people in El-Talatiny Street and other streets randomly. Yes, they were brutal, but people should have gone home to help the police determine the thugs, no?” the owner of a shop behind El-Arab police station told Ahram Online.
“There is no house in Port Said that is not feeling grief because a member has died, been injured or received the death penalty unjustly,” Farghaly said.
“In all cases, the police will be blamed,” said an enthusiastic young police officer sharing worries over his career and own safety inside Port Said prison. “If we do our job ending riots and street clashes, we will be questioned for violence and if we stand neutral, we will be accused of dereliction. What should we do?”
'A message from Port Said: We want justice'
Marches in Port Said
The turbulence in the city is far from over. A campaign of civil disobedience is currently being carried out by residents who demand that their voices be heard in Cairo.
“Injustice leads to explosion,” said the leader of the largest Masry fan group, the Ultras Green Eagles, Ali 'Spicy', who called for the current civil disobedience. “A message from Port Said people; we are suffering from all sorts of injustice, so beware the anger of the city of courage.”
“We want justice for the martyrs and want recognition as part of the revolution martyrs [who receive indemnities from the state]. An official apology from President Morsi is also essential,” said El-Masry.
“Hommos cannot hurt anybody. It was just an accident. Why do we have to pay? Why have all these good boys died in the stadium or around the prison? ” said Abou-Hommos, the father of the Masry fan sentenced to death.
“But I told my wife, don’t cry. God will give us justice either in this life or the life hereafter. There are dozens who died just because they were backing your son. They are even better than him. They are the real martyrs.”
"With our lives, with our blood, we will sacrifice ourselves to you martyrs: Either we avenge you or we die like you!" chanted protesters during this week’s marches in the city.
Advocates for the locals are clear that the only way forward is justice.
“Port Said was just a crime scene. Search for the criminals,” Farghaly said.
Port Said Prison after bloody clashes, 7 Feb. 2013 (Photo: Mohamed Nada)
Additional reporting by Mohamed Nada, Sherif Tarek and Karim Hafez