Egypt football violence: 'I saw people with knives and swords'
Witnesses give their account of clashes between Al Ahly and Al Masry supporters in Port Said as country mourns 74 dead
(Abdel-Rahman Hussein in Port Said and Martin Chulov guardian.co.uk 2-2-12)
Mohamed Hamouda was celebrating the third goal by his team, Al Masry, when a policeman standing near the playing field caught his eye. "A police officer told supporters to come on to the pitch," Hamouda claimed in the aftermath of Egypt's deadliest night of football violence, which killed 74 people and wounded hundreds more. "The gates on to the pitch were opened on purpose by someone before the game started."
Nursing an arm he said was injured trying to defend besieged fans from the Cairo-based Al Ahly club, Hamouda said nothing was normal about the chaotic end to the football game on Wednesday night that has reignited a combustible post-Mubarak Egypt. "When the match was over supporters rushed on to the pitch and then the lights went off," he said. "People didn't know who was with who. I then saw people throwing the Al Ahly supporters from the stands.
"The gate at the exit was also closed by someone on purpose. I saw people yesterday with knives and swords. I don't know them, they were not from Port Said."
The mad scramble to escape the carnage inside the Port Said stadium has horrified Egyptians, who are demanding answers about how and why the violence happened, who – if anyone – might have played a role in inciting it, and why the police and security forces appeared to do so little to stop it. The question remains whether the deaths and injuries were the result of simple football hooliganism that spiralled out of control, the inaction of the Egyptian police, who appear to have done nothing to stop the violence as it escalated, or whether it was orchestrated by the state, with paid thugs sent into the crowd to stir up trouble.
Many of the country's new legislators are calling for Egypt's military rulers to be held to account for a death toll unprecedented in the past year of turmoil and scenes that have weakened an already unstable and volatile state.
Tension had been building throughout the game, a grudge match between two historical foes. Two hardcore groups of fans, known as ultras, sat among the rival supporters. The ultras, who partly model themselves on Italian, Serbian and even British football gangs, have thrown themselves into the revolution's front lines over the past year, fighting frequent pitched battles with riot police.
Eyewitnesses spoken to by the Guardian said there was more to the violence than pure football hooliganism, the reason put forward by the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since Mubarak's removal.
Whatever the cause, the aftermath has become a political crisis. A day of highly charged accusations that security officials had partly engineered the violence in revenge for the ultras' role in revolutionary violence has led on Thursday night to renewed clashes near Tahrir Square, close to the interior ministry headquarters. The same riot police who were accused of standing back on Wednesday night as a group of Al Masry ultras stormed the field, in pursuit first of the Al Ahly players and then their fans – ultras and regular supporters – fired volleys of teargas at protesters.
Al Masry fans spoke of supporters at the game whom none of them knew. "We were surprised by buses coming from out of town carrying supporters wearing the shirts of Al Masry ultras," said Hamouda. Salah Abdel-Naeem el-Masry, a protester who was at the game, was just as shocked. "I swear it wasn't the people of Port Said who did this. I saw a young boy jump off the top of the stand out of fear. He landed on the top of the mosque and broke his leg."
He too claimed that there was more to the violence than initially met the eye. "I don't understand how five gates could be opened at the same time as soon as the referee blows the whistle," he said. "I ran to find the Al Ahly supporters injured, I went down to ask the security forces to do something and one of them told me he wouldn't because he didn't want to get hurt."
Mohamed Saleh, the security supervisor for the Al Masry club, claimed that he too noticed people in the crowd whom he described as "strangers". He said they were not the only strange part of an evening in which little went to a well-established security script.
"There are many reasons behind what happened," he said. "The banner, the gates being opened, the criminals in the crowd and Nile sports channel showing the Al Ahly ultras' buses arriving on the screen inside the stadium.
"The locks on three gates were broken throughout the game, by whom I don't know. I've been here four years and I've never seen some of the people I saw inside. Yes, they were from Port Said, but they were not the people I see regularly. I've never believed in conspiracies until yesterday. I've decided to not work in football again."
Mohamed Shaaban, who travelled from Cairo for the game, was in the main stand and saw frequent pitch invasions throughout the match, none of which were stopped by police. He said he noticed a lack of security well before kick-off. "When going into the stadium I was late, the police outside weren't in big numbers as they usually are for this game," he said. "As Al Ahly players were warming up on the pitch, fans were throwing missiles at them. Insults were exchanged by both sets of supporters but what really inflamed things was the banner unfurled by Ahly fans saying there were no men in Port Said.
"There were a lot of people around the pitch throughout the entire game and I have no idea who they were. Fans stormed the pitch at half-time and stayed around the pitch. When Masry scored more people would leave the stands and head to the pitch to celebrate with the players. Missiles were exchanged between the stands.
"The Ahly dressing room was beneath the stand that held the Ahly supporters. The gate between one of the stands and the pitch was opened as the game ended and fans rushed through. I could see the Ahly supporters rushing to the exits but they didn't seem able to leave."
Islam Saeed, a member of the Al Ahly ultras, said some Al Masry supporters were mocking the dead and injured after the game and stopping ambulances from arriving. He said a sense of foreboding had been building all night.
"Hundreds would storm the pitch after every goal, so we could sense what was going to happen. There was a huge lapse in security. The police non-intervention was very strange – there was practically no security outside the stadium and inside it they didn't do anything when events escalated.
"This was gross security incompetence coupled with the barbarity of some supporters. This has been happening for the past five years but security always intervened. They didn't this time. If you allow this to happen then you are liable for the deaths."
The family of one 16-year-old ultra, Mohamed Ahmed, had travelled from Cairo to find him. His cousin, Alaa, was in tears after a fruitless search through hospital morgues in Port Said, which were holding more than 50 bodies. The hospital was caring for several hundred casualties, many of whom were crushed against locked gates.
Protesters in Port Said marched through the streets of the city on Thursday, disavowing links to the violence. The region's governor has resigned his post, along with the region's security chief.
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