Hours before Port Said's verdict, Egypt braced for the unknown

Hatem Maher, Friday 8 Mar 2013

Hardcore football supporters in Cairo and Port Said sharpen knives ahead of a crucial court ruling on Saturday that will determine the fate of defendants in the infamous February 2012 football massacre case

Tahrir Square
An Egyptian protester waves a flare during a rally of thousands of soccer fans of Egypt's most popular team, Al-Ahly, in Tahrir Square, the focal point of Egyptian uprising, in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 18, 2013. (Photo: AP)

Gone are the days when the apolitical die-hard football fans in Egypt only convened to invent new techniques to egg on their favourite teams and create feverish atmospheres in stadiums.

During those days, the meetings’ agenda included introducing new Tifos, a term used to describe any choreography displayed by fans in the stands of a stadium, and holding aloft banners to mock opposing sides or target their stars in a bid to distract them.

The latter option was the farthest they went. Today it’s a totally different story.

"Nine March: Our date with the dogs of the interior ministry, who are still murdering and dragging [people]. It’s either justice or your blood," Cairo's Ultras Ahlawy, a group of ardent Ahly supporters, said on its official Facebook page, a few days before the anticipated court ruling on February 2012's Port Said football disaster.

Thousands of Ultras Ahlawy members are expected to converge on the club's headquarters in Al-Gezira district, Cairo, at 8am (6 GMT) on Saturday just one hour before the court delivers its verdict.

Following an ill-tempered Egyptian Premier League game, thousands of Masry fans violently attacked the visiting Ahly contingent, leaving over 70 Ahly supporters dead.

The aftermath of the shocking incident pitted both sets of fans against each other as they sought to pressure authorities into fulfilling their separate demands.

The gradual change from a group that solely focuses on football to one that explicitly threatens to sow chaos illustrates the growing anti-police sentiment of Ultras Ahlawy, who believe the security forces plotted the infamous post-match massacre on 1 February last year.

An initial court ruling in late January, which sentenced 21 Masry fans to death, sparked a rioting spree in Port Said that saw 40 people killed and left the city in a state of disarray characterised by intermittent clashes with police and growing contempt, prompting the army to intervene in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the unrest.

Ultras Ahlawy was partially satisfied with the verdict but continued staging protests and acts of civil disobedience until the second ruling, which the group hope will convict the nine security officials among the 52 remaining defendants set to learn their fate.

Ultras Green Eagles, the hardcore fans of Port Said's Masry club, are pressing hard for their comrades to be acquitted, believing they were used as political scapegoats.

Both sides are displaying their power, keeping Egypt on its toes ahead of the 9 March verdict.

Tensions ahead of ruling

The build-up to the second verdict has been more tense than the lead up to the first. In January Port Said was relatively calm and Ultras Ahlawy blocked vital roads without resorting to any kinds of vandalism.

Ultras Ahlawy has maintained the same pattern of civil disobedience ahead of the 9 March ruling, including besieging the Central Bank in downtown Cairo and blocking Salah Salem Street, a major thoroughfare leading to the Cairo International Airport.

They also laid siege to the residence of former interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who was in charge of the ministry at the time of the Port Said disaster, and rallied before security directorates in 10 governorates, torching a police vehicle in Giza in the process. They issued a warning that people "have not seen riots yet".

Their foes in Port Said were even more violent as they engaged in consistent clashes with police, who have been accused of resorting to unnecessarily heavy-handed methods of crowd control.

The melees eventually saw security forces withdraw from the restive city on Friday, making way for army troops who are now in charge of the security directorate, parts of which were set ablaze by angry protesters.

The Masry fans were particularly incensed by a decision to transfer 39 prisoners from Port Said to Wadi Natroun prison in Beheira governorate, on the other side of the Nile Delta.

“Ultras Ahlawy are blocking roads, shutting banks and blocking the airport route but the dogs of the interior ministry do nothing to them, because the Ultras Ahlawy belong to the regime,” Ultras Green Eagles said.

“But when we resort to peaceful means, or do exactly what the Ultras Ahlawy are doing, police respond by firing tear gas and live rounds, just because we haven’t struck any deals with the regime and we haven’t given up our rights.”

“The Port Said residents are being punished for not voting for Morsi in the presidential elections,” said El-Badry Farghaly, a former Port Said MP added.

The only thing both sides have in common is their hatred of police.

Ultras Ahlawy believe they were punished for battling Hosni Mubarak troops in the 2011 uprising while many in Port Said say security is singling the Masry supporters out because of their anti-Mohamed Morsi stance.

Bad timing

The 9 March verdict could not have come at a worse time for Egypt’s beleaguered President Morsi, who is already struggling to control an outpouring of anger in several cities including the canal cities of Suez and Ismailia and the Nile Delta cities of Tanta, Mahalla and Mansoura.

To rub salt into the wounds, 30 police stations nationwide, including seven in Cairo, went on a strike to demand the sacking of interior minister Ibrahim, whom they accused of "forcing police into unnecessary confrontations with citizens within the context of ongoing political unrest across the country".

Angry protesters are accusing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of monopolising power and turning a blind eye to their grievances amid calls for civil disobedience to heap more pressure on the president.

Morsi has so far remained defiant, dismissing the calls as acts of sabotage. He said recently he would visit Port Said but that possibility is highly unlikely in a city that is increasingly hostile towards the Islamist president.

The outcome of the anticipated verdict could add fuel to fire and make matters worse for Morsi.

If the ruling falls short of the demands of Ultras Ahlawy, they are expected to retaliate and perhaps target the interior ministry in the process.

The same goes for Green Eagles, who are equally determined to take a firm action if things do not go their way, leaving Morsi with little room for maneuvers to quell anger in Port Said, many fear the worst is yet to come.


Ahram Online will provide live coverage of the court verdict in the Port Said massacre case on Saturday morning

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