The violence which took place at the Port Said stadium on the evening of Wednesday 1 February was by far the worst in the history of Egyptian sports.
The violence which took place at the Port Said stadium on the evening of Wednesday 1 February was by far the worst in the history of Egyptian sports. At more than 70 dead and hundreds injured, it stands to be reported among the most violent in the history of world sport.
To say that the large number of dead and injured was the cause of excruciating national pain is an understatement. Much more painful was the brutality which stripped the young fans of their lives, body members, or health. The barbarism of the attackers who bludgeoned, stabbed, and threw the young fans from the high wall of the stadium to their death, then desecrated the bodies of the dead, defied all sanity.
The making of a fanatic
The young fans had gone, many travelling to Port Said from spots all over Egypt, to cheer on their favourite football team, al-Ahli, in a game against the Port Said al-Masry Club. The Ahli team lost 3-1; what pretext did al-Masry fans have to attack while they had emerged victorious over their archenemies?
Admittedly, this is not the first incident of violence on the courts. On 29 September 2010 this writer wrote in Watani warning of the escalating fanaticism among Egyptians, and especially of the role played by the media in stoking tempers. The extremism which was being widely propagated on the political and religious levels was bound to flow over to the sports fields. The concept of blind allegiance to a specific political movement or religious sect, to the intolerance of all other movements or sects as heresay, very naturally led to fanaticism on the level of sports. In all cases, the “other” was not accepted, let alone tolerated; he or she were prime targets for violence and harm.
Rooted in the Egyptian field
Is it possible to see the Port Said brutal violence independently from all the other forms of violence that today dominate our daily lives? And can it be separated from other earlier incidents of sports violence? Major among such incidents have been the stone-throwing and the torching of buses carrying the fans of other teams, the damage of stadiums and sports facilities of rivals, and the physical violence against competitors’ fans, to the point where the ultras of one team set a fan of another team on fire following a basketball game.
It is being circulated in the Egyptian media that the Port Said violence was the result of a conspiracy by supporters of the previous regime in Egypt, with the aim of creating a state of anarchy and counter revolution. Even if this were true, there still remains the fact that fanaticism appears to have become rooted in the Egyptian public field. The pain of the sectarian violence in Qena, Etfeeh, Imbaba, Merinab and Maspero is still too raw. Even common crime all-too-frequently today has its roots in tribal, class, or sectarian causes.
It is not too long ago that Egyptian courts lived a golden age of sports spirit. In 2006 Cairo hosted the African Cup of Nations, and Egyptians—including women and children—went out in huge numbers to cheer their team. The sports spirit they displayed was exemplary.
The ultras did not make or break cheering. Even before they emerged in Egypt, the country boasted cheer leaders who were the envy of the region. There was the late Ali al-Sebaei with his famous tarboush head dress, playing music on his oud. Sebaei accompanied the national team for the World Cup games in Italy in 1990, and was later honoured in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. And there was the Ahli fan Gamal Hamdoun who was always clad in the Egyptian flag, and Zamalek fan Ra’fat Yassin who was famous for his delightful dance. The Emirati al-Ain Club later recruited Yassin as professional cheer leader.
Even earlier, in the 1960s and 70s, there was the Ahli fans leader Tulba Saqr and the Zamalek leader George Saad who, despite leading fans of archrival teams, were known to be staunch friends with legendary wit.
During the last two decades, however, according to prominent sports critic Hassan al-Mistikawi, fans became visibly more aggressive, and cheers more abusive. Could anyone have imagined it would lead to Port Said, though? Or was Port Said a vile conspiracy? Or both?