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Port Said disaster reverberates in Cairo street battles

The fresh memory of Egypt's single deadliest day since the overthrow of Mubarak continues to push protesters into the line of the interior ministry's fire in downtown Cairo

Yassin Gaber, Friday 3 Feb 2012
Protesters chant anti-gov
Protesters chant anti-government slogans during a protest condemning the death of football fans at Port Said stadium, near the Interior Ministry in Cairo, 2 February 2012(Photo: Reuters

Clashes between Egypt’s Central Security Forces (CSF) and demonstrators continue in downtown Cairo’s flash-point street, Mansour, and the port city of Suez, following the death of at least 74 football fans largely Ahly supporters in Port Said Wednesday evening. The latest reports indicate about 1,500 injured up to now, while the death toll has not risen since Thursday night, when four people were killed. Two protesters were killed in Suez after security forces used lived rounds while defending a police station, reported Reuters.

Ultras Ahlawy hard-core Ahly supporters hit the streets Wednesday night, demanding justice for their dead colleagues and the removal of Egypt’s military junta from power. The bitter confrontation between CSF and protesters heated up Thursday night near the reviled Ministry of Interior. Thousands of youth surrounded the four streets, parallel to Mohamed Mahmoud Street and leading to the ministry, chanting, cursing and hurling stones and deployed tear gas canisters at the armoured and armed security forces.

According to one Ultras member, who gave his name as Mohamed, the group is primarily blaming the bloody events in Port Said on the ruling military council and the interior ministry, though, he adds, “Port Said supporters should have done more to prevent the violence.”

The street response, he told Ahram Online, was an unofficial and spontaneous reaction to the deaths. Regardless, Mohamed estimates that 70 to 80 per cent of the football organisation are in the streets protesting. The 22-year-old lost three friends in Port Said. Many others, he states, have lost far more.

The Ultras have yet to release an official statement or take collective action, but the numerous Ahly flags in Tahrir Square and Mohamed Mahmoud Street speak to the large number of members and supporters unofficially taking part in the protests.

These protesters have converged on the ministry seeking justice for the fallen supporters. This demand for justice, according to Mohamed, can neither be satisfied by money nor the honouring of the dead. "Justice can only be achieved by holding those responsible for the deaths to account." 

Protesters seem to have quickly shifted into gear, responding to CSF aggression with tools acquired from November and December’s clashes. Makeshift clinics and motorbike lanes
formed by protesters creating a human corridor were immediately established to quickly aid protesters in need of medical attention.

"We've seen Kartoush [bird shot pellets], rubber bullets and tear gas as usual... I saw both the canister and the gas; it's colourless and extremely strong. At 3am this morning the injuries coming in were due to live ammunition. During the night the fighting was very intense, with injuries to the eyes and face," stated Ahmed Gamel, a 31-year-old doctor’s assistant operating out of Tahrir Square’s central island.

Doctors and medical assistants, working in clinics near and around the front-lines, find themselves also needing medical attention. Ayman Abo Zied, an activist and medic treating the wounded, suffered a bird shot injury to his hands earlier today. According to Abo Zied, injuries coming into clinics are equally due to tear gas intoxication and bird shot wounds, which he adds are largely due to the CSF tactic of aiming at protesters’ abdomens and head.

“Ceasefires only occur for one of three reasons: either the CSF are rearming, resting or changing shifts. It isn’t good enough to call for a cleansing of the Ministry of Interior; the ministry needs to be completely supplanted. Any police force that can easily kill its citizenry must go,” Abo Zied stated.

Earlier Friday in Tahrir Square, the scene was dominated ahead of Friday prayers by around 1,000 protesters gathered on the corner with Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Waving the flags of bitter rivals Ahly and Zamalek football clubs, the protesters are chanting against the military council and for justice for those who have died.

The unofficial collaboration of Ahly and Zamalek football supporters on the ground is an indication, according to Mohamed, that this was and never will be about football. “It’s political,” he states, “Ultras Ahlawy is being targeted for its role in the revolution.”

As night falls the intensity of the CSF assault increases. The continually shifting front line and the existence of security forces on several side streets have given the conflict a chaotic and nerve-wracking fluidity. The several fronts have also compelled protesters to split ranks, as one group wades through clouds of thick white smoke eager to lob any and all tear gas canisters fired their way and another, two streets over, engages a phalanx of CSF troops and the sporadic fire of bird shot.

Demonstrators prepare for another night of battle with no sign of diminshing zeal or numbers, following more than a day of continuous clashes. Anti-military junta slogans resound and insults pepper the air in the narrow streets between the intermittant sound of CSF fire.

All this points to there being no end in sight to bloody confrontation. The military is nowhere to be seen. Many, however, wonder when they will play their hand.
Additional reporting by Bel Trew
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