Thursday, February 2, 2012

Thoughts on the Tragedy in Port Said

The figures coming out in most of the press are saying that over seventy died and over three hundred were injured in riots that broke out last night at a soccer match in Port Said between the most famous Cairo team, Al Ahly, and the home team Al Masry. Fans stormed the field, crowds spooked and stampeded towards steel doors bolted shut, flares caused a column of fire to explode behind the stands, and riot police neglected to prevent the situation from spiraling, either because they were overwhelmed or because…well, everyone is speculating. Politicians are blaming the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for the thin security presence (as many police have refused to work since the revolution). Forensic details have not been released, and the fact is that when thousands of people are involved in scenes of chaos, the lines between centrally-planned decisions and spontaneous cascades of reactions are hard, if even possible, to draw.

Three years ago, when Mubarak was still in power, I went to a qualifying match for the World Cup between Zambia and Egypt at Cairo Stadium. During the Mubarak years, intense soccer rivalries became an outlet for strangled political anger, and at the time hundreds of police in full riot gear formed a ring around the front row of the stands, as well as a human border for the sliver of seating given to visiting Zambian fans. It felt as though every precaution was taken to avoid chaos: Besides the security, the match, unlike pretty much any other event in Egypt, started on time to the minute. Several plainclothes police kept an eye on the American women sitting near me for their protection. At the match’s conclusion, tens of thousands of Egyptian fans were whisked out of the stadium in an expert display of crowd control before any Zambians were allowed to leave.

The security was extraordinarily well organized, which leads me to agree with the instant analysis coming out that suggests that someone made a decision to let the security apparatus fail and the violence to spiral. Others have pointed out that local authorities who usually attend these matches, the governor and head of security in Port Said, did not show up. The April 6 Youth Movement announced that “what happened yesterday does not have an explanation expect as part of a plan by the military council and the interior ministry to push the country into chaos and force us to embrace military rule.”

Last night and this morning, instant analysis has been streaming out of the press. While living in Egypt, I've often noticed that events seem to come out of nowhere, and then a bunch of writers who are apparently experts on soccer in Egypt, or whatever other fairly specific topic, appear to explain that the events were in fact not so surprising. James Dorsey, who writes a blog called The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, wrote in Foreign Policy that the riots were possibly a payback by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces against Ultras, Egypt’s hardcore soccer fans, who have taken a big role in Tahrir square protests over the last year. A year ago today, they had a big role in defending other protesters from pro-Mubarak forces who stormed Tahrir on camel and horse and caused numerous deaths. In a television interview, Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi said simply “this is a planned ambush on the Ahly Ultras group for their prominent role in the 25 January Revolution.”

Letting the violence spiral would make the Ultras look like the instigators, even though the relationship between the actual organized, decision-making bodies of Ultras and the thousands of rambunctious, unemployed youth who affiliate with them is unclear and permeable. “The stakes are high for the ultras,” Dorsey thinks, “with leaders effectively having lost control of a rank and file that has swelled in recent years with thousands of disaffected, unemployed, and often uneducated youth who believe it is payback time against a police force that is widely despised.”

Dorsey thinks this will lead most Egyptians to blame them and side with the SCAF because they want stability. Such was the dynamic during the November and December violence, when the SCAF allowed violence to spiral so they could be seen as the only protectors of economic and social stabilization post-revolution, both in the eyes of most Egyptians and the U.S.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s official statement about the events suggests the events are “the handiwork of domestic parties and dubious forces that still have strong ties with the former regime,” as well as  “foreign fingers that failed to take control of the Egyptian revolution, but never gave up attempts to distort, distract and disrupt the march of the revolution” They then “call upon the Egyptian people…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.”

They are, primarily, blaming people connected to the Mubarak regime in “the cells of Tora prison.” Then they refer to “foreign fingers” attempting to impede the “march of the revolution.” The Brotherhood often says what it believes the majority of Egyptians will say, and it looks a lot like how most average Americans would respond to violence they don’t understand, essentially saying we don’t care how this happened, but just get it together and make sure it doesn’t happen again and we’ll keep trusting you. The Brotherhood is tapping into a populist desire to look the other way. Almost on cue, Field Marshall Tantawi, said “Normal people did this, so normal people must move to stop them.” This is part of a continuing effort to widen the gap between anti-regime and pro-regime Egyptians, so they will fight each other instead of demanding political change. Looking back from last night, a rash of local crime in the past few days now seems like a slowly building argument to reinvigorate the Emergency Law debated by the People's Assembly earlier this week. 

The fact is that there were lots of TV cameras, but very few journalists at the game, or even in Port Said, which slowed the speed of coverage. Port Said is several hours from Cairo, and journalism in Egypt, especially of the Twittery, instant variety, is oriented to a fault towards the capital city. Every time even the slightest scuffle breaks out in Tahrir or nearby (October, November, December) it sends instant waves of information through the Internet, causing hundreds or even thousands of young activists to show up and escalate the violence through the sheer force of crowd presence. Security forces, under the authority but maybe not the direction of the SCAF, are stuck. If they fire, they get blamed by the protesters, and if they don’t, they get blamed by Egyptians who want an ever elusive “stability.”

On January 25th, the first anniversary of the revolution, some people certainly expected violence, but nothing happened. Tom Gara, of The National, wrote on the 29th that the “Egyptian army has discovered the secret to getting protesters to go home after a couple of days: don't attack them.”

There was a moment of stalemate. SCAF could not respond to protesters, of which the Ultras are often a committed segment, in Tahrir, because this has happened too many times and uninvolved spectators, the ever-mysterious “Silent Majority,” might start to think they are as guilty of instigating violence as the protesters.

The SCAF needed a new tactic, somewhere other than downtown Cairo to let violence that would not immediately be blamed on them spiral out of control. So, they left it to happen somewhere else, in a soccer stadium in Port Said. Perhaps they did not plan for what happened, but when you run a country, you still get the blame, and the real question will be if they get it or if they'll be able to place it again on the heads of the powerless.

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