Egypt faces precarious court session as threats mount over Port Said trial

Hatem Maher, Saturday 26 Jan 2013

Ahly fans vow to retaliate if Saturday’s court session, which could be the last in the infamous Port Said trial, falls short of their demands for retribution for the killings of more than 70 Ahly supporters last year

Port Said trial
Soccer fans chant slogans during a protest in Cairo, January 18, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

On Saturday, Egypt is expected to face another politically tense moment, as a court decides whether to deliver a verdict on the infamous Port Said football killings trial, or to delay a much-anticipated ruling amid fears that hardcore football fans may embark on a rioting spree if the decision does not fulfill their demands.

In a display of power, the Ultras Ahlawy, a group of ardent Ahly football club supporters whose street battle skills peaked during their confrontations with police forces during the 2011 uprising, blocked off vital locations in Cairo on Wednesday, issuing an explicit warning that they have no intention of backing down.

The emotionally-charged group is fuelled by anger, after more than 70 Ahly fans were killed when they were confronted by the home Masry fans at the end of an ill-tempered Egyptian Premier League game in Port Said on 1 February, 2012.

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

Egypt’s worst-ever football disaster sent shockwaves through a country that is struggling to recover from the aftermath of the revolution that unseated autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.

The judge presiding over the notorious case was due to deliver a verdict on Saturday, but that was thrown into doubt after the public prosecution said new evidence had emerged, paving the way for another delay.

Seventy-three defendants including nine security officials, three Masry football club officials and a number of fans are on trial for their suspected role in the tragedy.

The decisive court session comes only one day following the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

"The 26th of January will be more dangerous than the 25th," newly-appointed interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who came to office in a recent partial cabinet reshuffle, said in a television interview.

"Whatever the verdict is, it will not be final. There will be still room for appeal so I hope they [the Ultras] will not react until the final ruling. Our judiciary is free and fair. We should trust it."

However, with the rigid Ultras Ahlawy flexing their muscles to highlight their resolute demands, Ibrahim’s words are likely to fall on deaf ears.

‘Justice or chaos’

Wednesday’s parade of strength, which included a rally before Egypt’s stock exchange building, disrupted the services of Cairo’s underground and briefly blocked the vital Sixth October Bridge, setting alarm bells ringing ahead of Saturday’s verdict.

The enthusiastic fans, who were largely apolitical before the eruption of the 2011 uprising, daubed graffiti on the walls of Cairo’s metro stations bearing the words "26/1, justice or chaos" and distributed flyers and stickers among passers-by to remind them of what may unfold if things do not go their way.

The latest demonstration of power followed months of constant activities in which the Ultras stormed the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) headquarters and their own Ahly club to demand the suspension of domestic football activity until the perpetrators of the Port Said disaster are brought to justice.

The EFA said it would start the Premier League, which was cancelled last year in the wake of the tragedy, on 2 February.

"What happened today [Wednesday] is neither chaos nor nailing back the ears [of authorities]. It’s just a reminder that chaos is looming," the Ultras Ahlawy said on its official Facebook page, which has over 700,000 users.

"Saturday, 26 January is a decisive day for many people, and may be the last day for others who are pursuing their rights even if that cost them their lives…we will never lose our rights. Glory to the martyrs!"

Ultras Ahlawy members, who are imposing a media blackout, did not specify what actions they might take if the verdict did not satisfy them.

Their criteria of a "satisfying ruling" is also unclear, but a source close to their influential leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Ahram Online they want at least two of the 73 defendants "sentenced to death."

"They also want to see harsh prison sentences for the others, including security officials," the source added.

The hardcore fan group has been at loggerheads with Egyptian police since it was founded in 2007, consistently engaging in confrontations with security forces before and after football matches.

The tense relationship took a turn for the worse after an attempted police crackdown left more than 800 protesters dead during the 18-day revolt in 2011.

Police negligence was blamed by many for the Port Said disaster but many among the Ultras discuss the events in terms of a conspiracy, given the lax security at a highly-charged football game between two bitter rivals.

Attempts to placate anger

There have been unfruitful attempts to placate the anger of Ahly’s die-hard football fans, whose usual chants include taunts against the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential Islamist group which catapulted President Mohamed Morsi to power last year.

A key Ultras Ahlawy demand was fulfilled when Morsi decided to include the Port Said victims in the official list of the revolution's "martyred and injured," a move designed to give their families state-sponsored aid.

The prosecutor-general apparently sought to help the cause of Ultras Ahlawy by submitting new evidence, but critics dismissed his move as a manoeuvre to delay a verdict and avoid stirring trouble at a time when Morsi is struggling to win over the youth who ignited the 2011 revolution.

"Your dead are martyrs of the whole nation. We will continue to demand retribution for their blood and the blood of their fellow martyrs of January 25 Revolution until justice is achieved," Brotherhood media spokesman Yasser Mehrez said.

"Today witnessed the beginning as the prosecutor-general submitted new evidence related to the Port Said massacre to the Criminal Court."

However, there are few signs Ultras Ahlawy may soften their stance, and in the meantime, "justice or chaos" stickers abound in Egypt's streets and public places.

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