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Port Said: Pariah city

City residents and shop owners now live in a ghost town suffering ridicule, humiliation and an ongoing economic boycott in the aftermath of Egypt's worst ever sporting disaster

Yasmine Fathi , Thursday 16 Feb 2012
Port Said cafe
Empty coffee shop in Port Said (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
Views: 4756
Views: 4756

Two weeks after a football disaster in the city left 74 dead and hundreds injured, the coastal city of Port Said has been left reeling by an economic boycott and a profound sense of humiliation.

For decades the locals of Port Said were known as heroes. They fought the British and French during the 1956 Suez War, and the Israelis during the War of Attrition (1967- 1973).

However, everything changed at a football match on 1 February, when fans of local side Masry attacked fans of Cairo-based Ahly in scenes of unprecedented violence.

Since then, Egyptians nationwide have snubbed the city. Hatred of Port Said has spread like an infection through the country from Cairo to Aswan. So reviled has the town become, that some people compare it to Israel. "What's the Capital of Israel?" a graffiti message in Aswan asks. "Port Said" is the answer.

"Murderers! Thugs! Savages! That's what I hear every time I leave the city," complains Mohamed El-Sayed, a local taxi driver.

Outsiders who enter the city are met by an eerie silence. The once busy streets are deserted, the markets are dead and shop owners spend their days drinking coffee and reading newspapers when they should be selling and haggling.

El-Sayed transports passenger to and from Cairo in a seven seat minivan. He's been in the business for 35 years and has never experienced anything like this before.

"Being from Port Said now means that you are a criminal. If they see you, they will assault you," says El-Sayed.

Dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, El-Sayed stands at a vacant bus stop waiting for passengers, but he hasn't seen much business - none of the waiting drivers have. Since the tragedy, Port Said locals have become fearful for their lives and avoid leaving the city.

Locals who brave the hostile roads to the capital take the bus because to have a Port Said licence plate puts them at risk of attack.

"This car was attacked because it had a Port Said licence plate," he says, pointing to a battered car nearby. "Now we are all scared."

"I put a Cairo licence plate on my car because I'm scared of driving with my Port Said one," says Adel Bushara, another local driver.

It's not just the drivers who are struggling, there are reports that the food supply in the city has dwindled because cars carrying supplies are unable to enter. The situation is so bad, that the army sent 45 tonnes of food products to the ailing city.

However, Port Said MP Akram El-Shaer of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) denies that there is a supply shortage.

"The food was distributed to the poor and nothing more," he tells Ahram Online.

However, locals complain that there is indeed a shortage, which has led to a hike in prices across the city. What's more, the city's usually buzzing marketplace, famous for imported goods, courtesy of the city's Free Zone status, is struggling.

In the Tugary market in the city centre, restless shop owners spend their days waiting for customers.

"We now sell only 3 per cent of what we used to sell before the crisis," says Ahmed Abu El-Einein, who runs a cosmetics shop. "I feel like we are under siege. Fine, something terrible happened here, but why are they punishing us?"

Over at the El-Hameedy market, the situation is no better. Few customers roam the streets that are lined with clothes displayed on racks.

"I don't sell anything all day. We don't get outsiders wanting to buy anymore," says Mohamed Abdel Rahman, who runs a clothes shop in the market.

His neighbour Omar Ibrahim, a belt seller, has the same complaint.

"I used to make LE300 per day but now if I'm lucky I make LE50, and I still have to pay my employees," says Ibrahim. "I don't know anything about football and I have five children to feed. We are being treated like we're not Egyptians. I cannot support my family if this boycott continues."

Some exasperated shop owners have begun to close early to save water and electricity, while others have doubled their prices to balance their losses.

"It's the only way I can survive this crisis," admits Mustafa Khamis, a shoe shop owner.

Officials, however, continue to play down the problem. El-Saher says there was a slump in the city but it ended after ten days.

"The FJP sent their youth to neighbouring cities and managed to persuade the locals to end the boycott," El Shaer says.

Renowned Port Said leftist businessman Sayed Karawya says that while there is a problem, it has been exaggerated by the ruling military junta.

"The army wants to send the message that Port Said is under siege and they stepped in to save the day," Karawya says. "They are behaving as if we are a poor foreign country and they are sending us aid."

However, Karaweya grudgingly admits to leaving his car in Cairo and returning home by bus because he has Port Said licence plate. However, he still believes the army is mishandling the situation.

"Why are they sending us aid convoys? Are we Somalia?" he fumes. "This is a political carnival and nothing more. They could have done a better job by securing the roads instead of sending convoys, but they've destroyed the image of a respectful city."

Political activist George Ishak, a native of Port Said who ran for the city's parliamentary seat and lost to El-Shaer, echoes this sentiment.

"Port Said is a city of heroes and the people are recovering well from the incident," Ishak says. "Whoever is spreading rumours that the city is under siege is trying to turn Egyptians against one another, which is very dangerous at this stage."

However, while politicians continue to point fingers at one another, the situation in Port Said remains tense. General Sameh Radwan, head of Port Said security, says the relationship between locals and the police has plunged since the tragedy.

Following the incident, video footage appeared on the internet of police watching passively on the sidelines as the attacks in the Port Said Stadium took place. This led disgruntled locals to complain that they were taking the flak for a crime caused by police negligence. Police officers working the streets in Port Said find themselves on the receiving end of the residents' anger.

"People insult them in the street and accuse them of being conspirators," says Radwan. "But the fact is that there were a huge number of people in the stadium and the security forces did not have the capability to deal with all them."

The security forces and the prosecution are doing their best to resolve the crisis, he says. Already 79 suspects, mostly Port Said locals, are being questioned in relation to the violence. Radwan adds that more arrests are being conducted on a daily basis. The police, he says, have accumulated extensive video footage, as well as photos and eyewitness accounts, in order to make sense of the violence.

"We are doing our best to make sense of this terrible crime and to try and understand the motives behind it," General Radwan tells Ahram Online.

The people of Port Said have done a lot of soul searching since the tragedy. They refuse to believe that cold blooded killers live amongst them and insist that the tragedy was the result of a conspiracy.

"Port Said people are emotional and temperamental, but we are not killers," El-Sayed says. "Those people are not from here."

"These people who are boycotting us now, forget that while they were sleeping, the people of Port Said fought and died for Egypt in three wars," Adel Gomaa, a shop owner, insists.

The elusive truth continues to dodge the grasp of investigators – much to dismay of locals, who stress that they will not find solace until they have answers – and security forces continue to work on the case.

"We will not stop until we find the truth," says Radwan. "So that the families of the martyrs find peace and so the people of Port Said can find peace as well."

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