Soccer Fans Defy Emergency Rule, Force Work Stoppage in Port Said

03/06/2013 11:49 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2013
  • James Dorsey Senior fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Thousands of militant soccer fans, in an indication that emergency rule will not squash mass protests, blocked government buildings as part of a general strike in the Suez Canal city of Port Said that is at the center of mounting anger at the brutality of police and security forces and demands that those responsible for the death of more than 800 protesters since mass demonstrations erupted in Egypt two years ago and toppled president Hosni Mubarak be held accountable.

The protest that forced the closure of the port authority and disrupted rail and telecommunications services constitutes a reaffirmation of a deep-seated sense among residents that Port Said is being made a scapegoat for at best the failure by law enforcement to prevent and at worst to have instigated a politically loaded soccer brawl a year ago in which 74 fans were killed.

By targeting the port authority but stopping short of seeking to close the Suez Canal, the fans signaled that they could strike where it hurts most: Egypt's economy that has been in decline since the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak and constitutes one of President Mohammed Morsi's foremost Achilles heels. In a victory for the protesters, Mr. Morsi shied away from enforcing the 30-day curfew in the city that he had declared in January.

Security forces brutally intervened last month killing some 40 people to squash protests against the sentencing to death of 21 members of the Green Eagles, the militant support group of Al Masri SC, Port Said's football club, on charges of having been responsible for the brawl. In response to the protests in Port Said and elsewhere Mr. Morsi declared emergency rule in the city of 600,000 as well as in two other Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, Ismailia and Suez.

Tension is likely to build further in the walk-up to the expected verdict on March 9 in the case of 52 remaining defendants in the Port Said trial, who include club and mid-level security officials.

To prevent further protests and violence, Mr. Morsi would have to meet at least some of the militants demands and take convincing steps towards beginning a process of reform of the police and security forces, the most despised institutions in Egypt because of their role as the executors of the Mubarak regime's repression, that has continued to employ hard-handed tactics since the Egyptian leader's downfall.

The militants are demanding an independent investigation presided by a judge from outside Port Saud into the last month's killing of protesters; the granting of the status of martyrs of the revolution to the dead which would entitle their families to government financial support and a renewed investigation of last year's brawl, the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history.

The protests put Mr. Morsi in a bind. Any concession to the Green Eagles could provoke resistance from the militant supports of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC, who were the main victims in last year's brawl. Al Ahli supporters celebrated the sentencing to death of the Green Eagle members, although they agree with their rivals that last year's incident was not spontaneous and likely instigated by supporters of Mr. Mubarak and at least tolerated by the security forces.

Scores of employees of the provincial government, the judiciary, utilities and customs joined the protesters who gathered in front of government buildings on early Sunday morning, the first day of the work week.

In a statement, the Green Eagles said "Port Said has always been treated unjustly over the years," a reference to a perception among city residents that they have always stood in the forefront of the country's battles, including the various wars with Israel, but have been neglected over the years by the central government rather than rewarded.

"The city's revolt comes because of a deep sense of injustice," the statement said. It said that sense was strengthened by last month's use of live ammunition against protesters.

"The officials have done nothing for us ... The presidency is not moving a finger," Mohammed Fouad, a representative of Port Said's business community, told Egypt's privately-owned ONTV channel.

Opposition groups expressed support for the Port Said protests. The Popular Current group, one Egypt's major opposition groups, described them as "part of the popular anger" against Mr. Morsi.

"What is happening in Port Said is a legitimate right in the face of an authority that has adopted repression and tyranny," the group said in a statement.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

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