Security forces loyal to ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have been blamed for sparking the football riot which killed 74 people and left more than 1,000 injured.
Violence flared in the Mediterranean city of Port Said last night after local team Al-Masry beat Cairo’s Al-Ahly—the country’s most successful club—3-1.
The final whistle prompted more than 13,000 home fans, armed with knives, iron bars and machetes, to storm the pitch and attack rival players and their 1,200 supporters.
Police and stadium security staff looked nonchalantly on as rioters fired flares into the stands and fans were flung off their seats onto the pitch.
One officer was filmed as people poured onto the field, talking on a mobile phone. Stones, fireworks and bottles were thrown—sparking a devastating stampede where many were crushed to death.
Some fans were cornered in the stadium as parts of it were set on fire—others joined Al-Ahly players in fleeing to their dressing room where they locked themselves in for safety.
Egyptian soldiers were later airlifted in by helicopter to rescue stranded players who became trapped in the changing rooms. As the trouble unfolded in Port Said, a stadium in Cairo was also set on fire by fans after a referee cancelled a match.
Al-Ahly goalkeeper Sharif Ikrami, who was injured in the clashes and said the entire team had now quit football, said dead bodies were carried past him in the changing room.
He said: ‘There were people dying in front of us. It’s over.
‘We’ve all made a decision that we won’t play soccer any more. We can’t think about it.’
Pure hooliganism, and a bitter long-standing rivalry of clashes between the two sets of fans, was initially blamed for the worst football riot in Egyptian history.
But speculation is now mounting that the riot was orchestrated by pro-Mubarak forces in revenge against Al Ahly’s ultra fans.
The ultras had used their experience confronting police at matches to play a significant role in defending Cairo’s Tahrir Square—the heart of the uprising—against Mubarak’s heavy-handed security forces.
Albadry Farghali, a member of parliament for Port Said, screamed in a telephone call to live television: ‘The security forces did this or allowed it to happen.
‘The men of Mubarak are still ruling. The head of the regime has fallen but all his men are still in their positions.’
Former Al-Ahly player Hani Seddik told the BBC: ‘I don’t think this is about football. These trouble-makers were not football fans.
‘How were they allowed to carry knives into the ground? To me, this is the actions of people who do not want the country to be stable and want to put off tourists from coming here.’
Abdullah el-Said, a 43-year-old driver in Port Said, said: ‘All that happened is not for the sake of a game. It’s political. It was orchestrated by the military council to target the Ultras.
‘The military council wanted to crush the ultras because they sided with protesters ever since the revolution began.’
Farouk Ibrahim added: ‘Unknown groups came between the fans and they were the ones that started the chaos.
‘I was at the match and I saw that the group that did this is not from Port Said. They were thugs, like the thugs the National Democratic Party used in elections.’
He was referring to Mubarak’s former NDC party and the polls that were routinely rigged in its favour.
And Al-Masry manager Kamal Abu Ali also referred to the speculation, as he announced he was resigning and said: ‘This is not about soccer. This is bigger than that. This is a plot to topple the state.’
Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, in an emergency parliamentary session, announced he had dissolved the Egyptian Soccer Federation’s board and referred its members for questioning by prosecutors about the violence.
He also said the governor of Port Said province and the area’s police chief have resigned.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful party in Egypt’s parliament, also blamed supporters of the deposed Mubarak regime for promoting violence at the match as a way to bring back chaos to Egypt.
It blamed an ‘invisible’ hand for causing the violence and said the authorities were negligent. It said: ‘We fear that some officers are punishing the people for their revolution and for depriving them of their ability to act as tyrants and restricting their privileges.’
The Ultras have vowed vengeance, and thousands of protesters converged today on Cairo’s Tahrir Square—the epicentre of the uprising that ousted Mubarak last year—carrying the red flag of the city’s Al-Ahly soccer club and the national banner.
They then marched to the nearby Interior Ministry to protest the police inaction and call for retribution for the people who died in the world’s worst soccer violence in 15 years.
The protesters raised flags of Al-Ahly and Zamalek, another top team with its own Ultras group, and Egyptian flags. Some held black banners reading: ‘Mourning’.
Anger is now rising amongst politicians about the lack of security at the match, with many accusing the military regime that took over from Mubarak of allowing, or even causing, the fighting.
Mahmoud el-Naggar, 30, a laboratory technician and member of the Coalition of the Revolutionary Youth in Port Said, said: ‘The military council wants to prove that the country is heading towards chaos and destruction.
‘They are Mubarak’s men. They are applying his strategy when he said ‘choose me or choose chaos.’
Anger quickly spread across Egypt as thousands gathered at Cairo’s main train station to chant ‘Down with military rule’ as the injured fans returned.
They shouted, as covered bodies were unloaded from trains: ‘The people want the execution of the field marshal. We will secure their rights, or die like them.’
Hundreds of protesters also gathered outside the state television building and marches across the capital are planned for later today. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 76, who heads the ruling military council, took an unusual step of speaking by telephone to a television channel, the sport broadcaster owned by Al Ahly, and vowed to track down the culprits. The army announced three days of national mourning.
‘I deeply regret what happened at the football match in Port Said. I offer my condolences to the victims’ families,’ Tantawi said. He said a fact-finding committee would be set up and pledged that the army’s plan to hand over power to civilians would not be derailed. The army has promised to go back to barracks by the end of June after a presidential election.
He added: ‘Egypt will be stable. We have a roadmap to transfer power to elected civilians. If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt they will not succeed.’ But his comments have done little to assuage the anger of fans, who, like many Egyptians, are furious that Egypt is still plagued by lawlessness and frequent bouts of deadly violence almost a year after Mubarak was driven out and replaced by an army council.
Parliament will hold an emergency session later today to discuss the violence. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said 47 people were arrested. Egypt’s football federation said it was indefinitely delaying matches for the Egyptian premier league. And the Al Ahly club said it was suspending all sports activities and holding three days of mourning.