Angry protesters blame security forces over football tragedy

Hatem Maher, Friday 3 Feb 2012

The peaceful marches to the interior ministry to protest Wednesday’s deadly football riots in Port Said turns sour as protesters clash with police

Over 100 were injured during Thursday's clashes (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Night clashes between security forces, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd few meters away from the interior ministry, and protesters left around 400 injured, according to the Egyptian health ministry.

Around 74 football fans were killed and hundreds injured when Masry supporters invaded the pitch during an Egyptian Premier League game to home to Ahly, confronting the visiting supporters in an ugly scene that led to one of Egypt’s worst catastrophes in decades.

Security forces were widely accused of deliberately declining to intervene in the melee, which sparked shockwaves across Egypt and prompted an outpouring of anger on Thursday as demonstrators stepped up the pressure on the military junta to transfer power to a civilian authority.

Tens of thousands of angry youths, who were accompanied by some old men and women, marched from Ahly’s club headquarters in Al-Jazeera district to the ministry of interior premises, a few hundred meters away from Tahrir, the iconic square which was the hotbed of January’s popular uprising that ousted autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.

They echoed the chants they used recently, including the famous ones: “Down with the military regime” and “The people want to execute the Field Marshal”, referring to Egypt’s de facto leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

The only difference is that the atmosphere was much tenser than in recent marches.

Please, calm down!

The march itself was fully peaceful, with enthusiastic youths paying homage to the victims and calling for retribution, which was nowhere to be seen when more than 100 died because of three separate clashes against the police and army in the last three months of 2011.   

The heated exchanges between some protesters began just when they reached Mansour Street that leads to the interior ministry.

“Selmeya, Selmeya (peaceful),” many protesters shouted as they closed on the notorious ministry, only to be interrupted by an overly-emotional protester, who said: “No, not selmeya anymore” before breaking into tears.

Fearing possible confrontation with police that could lead to fatal consequences, several men told the young man: “please calm down, we don’t want another bloodbath”.

Few minutes later, another heated argument erupted over whether it was appropriate to march towards the interior ministry, with many worrying about a potential repeat of the infamous Mohamed Mahmoud clashes in November last year, which left more than 40 dead.

While some stood still, many protesters, fuelled by anger, rushed towards a barbed wire set up by police to prevent any storming of the ministry, which has been under constant pressure since police attempted to repress last year’s 18-day revolt.

Sporadic stones

The majority of protesters eventually followed in the footsteps of their colleagues, almost packing Mansour street and hurling a barrage of insults at Tantawi, his deputy Sami Annan and former interior minister Habib El-Hadly, who is currently tried on charges of killing hundreds of demonstrators last year.

The efforts to make sure there would be no violence continued though. A powerful-looking man with scarily intense eyes made his case.

“I swear I would not let any infiltrator ruin our demonstrations. Just point to anyone who tries to stir any troubles and I would kill him,” he said, but failed to fulfill his promise.

In sporadic incidents, a handful of protesters threw stones at the other end of the barbed wire but they were kept at bay by other demonstrators, who were determined not to engage in any scuffles with police.

As the night fell, numbers hugely increased, filling two adjacent streets. It was then very difficult to keep everything under control.

Some protesters flew off the handle as they attempted to bring down a concrete wall separating them from the ministry, prompting security forces to fire tear gas as hundreds were taken to hospitals.

It was hard to verify whether the powerful-looking man was still there.

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