Riots in Cairo as funerals begin for stadium victims

Football fans gathered in Cairo to meet a train carrying the bodies of their friends © Getty Images

Egypt is in tumult after one of the worst outbreaks of football violence in modern times. Some blame the government or say it was a foreign plot. Others point the finger at human nature.

Football in Egypt is like a second religion. During the long years of the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, football matches were among the few occasions at which real, unrestrained self-expression was possible. Clubs like al-Ahly, in Cairo, or al-Masry in Port Said built up devoted followings of passionate fans, who would do anything for their team.

Meetings between the so-called ‘Ultras’ of each side would often turn violent. Running battles were a common feature of Egyptian football, both inside and outside stadiums. Only the heavy presence of riot police was enough to keep opposing fans apart, and maintain some appearance of order.

This week, that order came horrifyingly and bloodily apart. Al-Ahly had lost a match to their underdog rivals al-Masry by three goals to one – an embarrassing result. Suddenly, as the final whistle blew, thousands of celebrating al-Masry fans stormed onto the pitch, some – apparently – armed with knives and clubs.

‘I saw our fans die before us,’ the al-Ahly team manager later recalled. ‘We were unable to do anything.’ As violence spread, terrified fans rushed for the exits where many suffocated in the narrow concrete passageways during the stampede. By the time calm descended, 74 people had been killed, and hundreds more injured.

The riot, one of the worst football disasters in history, has shattered Egypt’s fragile political equilibrium. The al-Ahly Ultras were on the front lines during last year’s successful revolution. Now, they have returned to Cairo’s streets – furious that police at the stadium did not do more to protect them. At press time, clashes were continuing outside the interior ministry and had left dozens injured, as police fired tear gas into the angry crowds.

Meanwhile, many Egyptians are looking on in horror. At a time when people are struggling to rebuild, when businesses are slowly getting back on their feet, a simple game of football has pushed the country to the edge of a second revolution.

Who to blame?

Angry voices on the streets are looking for someone to blame. How, they ask, could things go so violently wrong? The most widely held theory is that the pitch invasion was arranged by the post-revolutionary military government in an attempt to cling onto power. The generals hired thugs, the conspiracy theorists say, to prove to the world that without their strong leadership, Egypt would fall apart.

According to many analysts, such theories may not be completely far fetched. On the other hand, they point out, history proves that it doesn’t take a conspiracy to get people killing each other. This latest spike of violence was probably caused, not through the ill will of some external enemy, but by dark forces within human nature itself.

You Decide

  1. Are humans violent by nature?
  2. Why do people feel so passionately about something that is, in the end, just a game?

Activities

  1. Design a poster to encourage football hooligans to give up violence.
  2. What is human nature? In groups, list five qualities all humans have. Are they mainly good, or mainly bad?

Some People Say...

“Sport always brings out the worst in people.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This all seems very remote!
Well, Egypt is pretty important. It’s the most populous country in the Arab world, and by far the biggest to lose a dictator during the Arab Spring. Its future course will set the direction for the entire Middle East.
So?
Well, if you live in Europe, the Middle East is right next door. Trouble there could mean trouble at home too. There are also lessons here about the dangers of football violence, which affects countries all over the world.
Is it just football?
Actually, one of the earliest recorded examples of sports violence was over a chariot race, in the ancient city of Constantinople (modern Istanbul). A squabble between rival fans led to riots in which half the city was burned and thousands of people were put to the sword.

Word Watch

Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt as a dictator from 1981 until he was forced to step down by a wave of popular protests last year.
Port Said
Port Said is a prosperous city of half a million inhabitants which sits at the North end of Egypt’s Suez Canal. Sporting life in Port Said is dominated by the popular al-Masry football team.
Stampede
In many football disasters, there are more casualties from people being crushed as they rush for the exits than from actual acts of violence. That appears to have been the case at Port Said as well.
Military government
After Mubarak was forced to step down, the Egyptian Armed Forces took over the running of the country in preparation for democratic elections. It is widely believed that the generals would like, if possible, to hold onto power for themselves.

Subjects