The Aftermath of Egypt's Soccer Carnage: Where to Pin the Blame?

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Carsten Koall / Getty Images

Egyptian protesters are blocked by police on their way to the Ministry of the Interior after a demonstration outside al-Ahly's soccer stadium on Feb. 2, 2012, in Cairo

The worst soccer violence in Egyptian history has set off a fresh wave of popular anger in the Arab world's largest country, which is still reeling from the security vacuum and economic crisis stoked by the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak a year ago. At least 74 people were killed and hundreds more wounded on Wednesday night, according to government health authorities, when fans of al-Masry, the local soccer team, stormed the field in the coastal city of Port Said, following a match against the popular Cairo club, al-Ahly. Limited footage of the rampage reveals a police force that failed to intervene, even as hundreds stampeded across the pitch wielding stones and broken bottles.

Thousands took to the streets of Cairo on Thursday to protest the violence. Others took to Twitter and social media. But even amid the cloud of anger, there was little agreement across the political and economic spectrum on what had led to the carnage.

Many of Egypt's liberal youth activists quickly pinned the blame on a military-orchestrated conspiracy. "SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] is trying to manipulate people into begging for the reinstatement of the Emergency Law again," activist Ahmad Aggour tweeted hours after the violence erupted on national news. Others questioned how a police force so notorious for its use of brutality against protesters — and in securing government buildings — had proved unable to stop a rampage in a soccer stadium.

Egypt's new parliament, led by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, convened for an emergency session on Thursday. But already government and political-party rhetoric appears to be following a familiar pattern. The head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has called for three days of national mourning, as well as an official investigation into the violence. (Official investigations of past riots and protest violence have rarely led to convictions.) And the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party released a statement saying that the deaths were "evidently, the handiwork of domestic parties and dubious forces that still have strong ties with the former regime, which manages the sabotage scheme from the cells of Tora prison [where the sons of the ousted President now reside]."

If the soccer riot was an elaborate plot by Egypt's military rulers to derail the antimilitary "revolution" and garner popular support, then it also most certainly failed. Anger at the generals and their appointed cabinet seemed to run even higher in the aftermath of the violence. And even as authorities moved to appease protesters — sacking security officials in Port Said and promising an investigation — the potential for more violence loomed as fresh marches converged on Tahrir Square in Cairo and the parliament.

"They're hand in hand with Mubarak," shouted Nadia Ahmed Ibrahim, 46, of the military as she marched alongside hundreds carrying al-Ahly flags toward the Cairo club headquarters in the center of the capital on Thursday. Mubarak's regime is still in power, she said. Ibrahim and a small group of women chanted, "Down with military rule," as they walked.

The Ahly team's Ultras — an organized core of extreme fans, who Egyptian media reported had suffered the bulk of the fatalities on Wednesday — also have a tough legacy and a history of bad blood with the police. The Ultras participated in fierce battles against security forces during the uprising and in protests since. Some observers suggested that the Ahly fans had chanted provocations before the Port Said onslaught.

More likely, even many of the protesting Ahly fans have argued, the Masry fans — with whom they have a fierce rivalry — were able to take advantage of the country's security vacuum and a lax police force that had little interest in stopping the melee. An Ahly fan, Ahmed Aboul Elaa, 27, described the Port Said fans as "hungry lions" that had been released from their cage by weak and incompetent guards. "There were orders from higher powers not to clash and not to interfere," he said. "And that is the biggest element behind the chaos in this country right now."

"Port Said hates us," said Mahmoud Shehata, another protester in Cairo. "Whoever tells you felool [regime remnants] did it is wrong. We blame the Ministry of the Interior. They let them go in there with weapons because they were afraid to stop them."

Indeed, the failure of Egypt's interim government to reform its police force remains one of the sorest points for Egyptians in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall, and it may well be the most significant factor behind the massacre on Wednesday night. Under Mubarak, state security forces and the police were trained to do little more than crack down on dissenters, using brutal force against protesters and torture against suspects in custody. But on the street, the police force had a reputation for extracting bribes, and providing slow or ineffective responses to crime and civil strife. Instead of implementing new reforms since Mubarak's ouster, the Ministry of the Interior, which runs both forces, has largely recoiled. Not one police officer has served prison time for violence against protesters during the uprising. Since then, popular frustration has stewed.

In the blame game, the usual suspects also came up. The Brotherhood's party statement declared that "foreign fingers" were also responsible. And it urged Egyptians "to be vigilant, to thwart these plots, and to expose these groups and movements that want to drag Egypt into an abyss of organized chaos so as to prevent this homeland from enjoying stability, security, development and prosperity." The statement spoke to a rising tide of xenophobia and particularly anti-Americanism, which has been promoted by Egypt's military rulers and state television in recent months. It's a popular line for a country long accustomed to opacity and the conspiratorial suspicion it promotes. And it may well spell a renewed xenophobic backlash as Egyptians seek easy answers to a tragedy. One thing the government's actions are unlikely to do, however, is to stave off future unrest.

— With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani / Cairo