On Sunday February 8 2014 anywhere between 19 and 28 people were killed in a stampede outside of Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium. This grisly stadium disaster occurred almost three years to the day of another riot in Port Said Stadium on February 1 2012 that killed 72. On that day it was a match between Al Masry and Al Ahly, on Sunday it was Al Ahly’s rivals Zamalek against ENPPI. After the 2012 events the Egyptian Premier League was suspended and no fans were allowed into matches until December of last year. Since then limited numbers of fans have been allowed into matches and just 5,000 tickets where made available in the 30,000 capacity Air Defense Stadium–the Interior Ministry had planned on allowing just 10,000 into the stadium. For me, this raises the obvious question: If some fans can be let in, then why not all? Either allow no fans in…or allow all the fans in. This odd discrepancy signals to me that some members of the state security forces where expecting this.
For now, let us look at the facts. Security officials said that Zamalek fans attempting to enter the stadium without tickets sparked the clashes. As someone who has witnessed first hand small scale crushes at stadium entrances due to ticketless fans this is certainly plausible. The Zamalek fan group “Ultras White Knights” (UWK) announced on their Facebook page that only one small barbed-wire door (about 3.7 meters or 12 feet wide) was opened for them which sparked pushing, leading to the police firing tear gas at the crowds. As someone who has seen first hand the ways that police sometimes orchestrate chaos, this explanation is, also, not out of the question. Following the deaths the Egyptian football League has been suspended indefinitely as the blame game starts.
Images Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31252429
“Because of the stampede, some choked and died from asphyxiation, while the rest died from being trampled,” a police official told the state-run newspaper, al-Ahram, according to the BBC. The Ultras White Knights say that birdshot and tear gas were fired, contradicting the emergency services’ statement, but such reports were corroborated by eye-witnesses. The President of the Zamalek club Mortada Mansour “said in an interview with a private TV station that police had not opened fire on the club’s fans, and that the violence was ‘orchestrated’ to undermine the upcoming parliamentary elections.” According to the BBC, Mansour is a supporter of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi who overthrew former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
The Ultras White Knights and even a Muslim Brotherhood activist who took to Twitter are claiming that the violence was set up, “a planned massacre, premeditated murder and a conspiracy plotted by mean people” according to the UWK Facebook page. Just a groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum came together to express such views, so too did political figures. Leader of the liberal Al-Ghad Party Ayman Nur predicted that no one will be held responsible while the leader of the Islamic Group’s Building and Development Party, Tariq al-Zumur, tweeted that “the massacre” of Zamalek fans “is new evidence for how the gang [in reference to the authorities] allows the shedding of Egyptian blood”. Meanwhile state media outlets such as newspapers Al-Ahram al-Masa’i and Al-Jumhuriyah blamed the ultras for “rioting” and trying to enter the stadium without tickets. The executive editor of Eygpt’s state run Mena news agency went as far as saying that the security forces were “completely innocent”.
Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31299125
Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31252429
On Tuesday February 10 it was announced that the families of those who died would be compensated 25,000 Egyptian Pounds (3,280 USD). It was an interesting announcement since the death total is still not confirmed. A Health Ministry spokesman put the number at 19 while the Public Prosecutor’s office put the number at 22. UWK say they have “28 Martyrs”. While the exact numbers are not clear what is clear is that this should never have happened. For me, the fact that only some fans where let in—after the full ban was lifted—in leads me to believe that the state wanted some sort of confrontation in order to justify the harsh measures taken against football fans. We saw it in Turkey, after 2013’s Besiktas-Galatsaray derby, where members of the Besiktas Ultra group Çarşı were effectively framed following an ugly pitch invasion. In any case, it is important to note that this isn’t just your standard “soccer riot”, as US news outlet ESPN reported and that, unfortunately, some of the American readership believed; one even chose to ask why average Americans should like soccer?
If one wants a standard “soccer riot” they need look no further than the scenes at the Africa Cup of Nations Semi Final match between Ghana and Equatorial Guinea. The host country’s fans started throwing foreign objects at their Ghanaian counterparts out of frustration at losing 3-0. Of course, there was some politics involved in that as well—after their quarterfinal exit at the hands of the hosts Tunisian officials accused the referee of bias, but, in my mind, this was still just disgruntled fans unable to stomach defeat on home soil.
Of course it is not all doom and gloom in Middle Eastern and North African football. It is worth noting that the January 23 Asian Cup match between bitter geopolitical rivals Iran and Iraq went off without a hitch, with Iraq winning on penalties 7-6 in a thriller that will certainly go down in history for all of the right reasons. Much is to be said for such a high profile match ending without issue—just recall the chaotic scenes from the Serbia-Albania European Championship qualifier from last October.
For more on Egyptian football and its political implications please see Professor James Dorsey’s blog here.