Egyptian soccer deaths bring new cycle of violence
Saturday, February 4, 2012
CAIRO (AP) — Protesters filled the streets and clashed for a second day Friday with police who fired tear gas and birdshot in Cairo, as a deadly soccer riot focused rising public anger over lawlessness and collapsing security a year after Egypt’s uprising.
Six people have been killed and more than 1,500 injured in the latest bloodshed that followed a violent melee and stampede after a soccer game Wednesday in the Mediterranean city of Port Said in which 74 people died.
Egyptians streamed out of Friday prayers in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and several Nile Delta cities, criticizing police and calling on the military rulers led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to step down.
On Cairo’s Tahrir Square — the heart of the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak a year ago — protesters raised banners and pictures of those killed in Port Said and chanted, “The people want to execute the marshal.”
The police force, which for decades was associated with torture and corruption in the Mubarak regime, is now being criticized in the soccer stadium deaths — whether from a lack of control or, as some alleged, on purpose.
For many Egyptians, the security vacuum is not just a sign of incompetence but part of the larger overall failure by the military council to steer the country through its turbulent transitional period. They also see selectivity in policing the streets.
Leading democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei said delays in reforming the security apparatus is itself “a crime against the nation,” adding the current violence is the “price we pay for stumbling in the transitional period.”
The clashes in Cairo began Thursday as the bodies of the dead soccer fans were returned to the capital for burial, and the violence escalated. Protesters converged on the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, which oversees police, throwing stones.
Police responded with tear gas and birdshot, and protesters donned helmets and gas masks to battle their way through streets thick with smoke from tear gas and burning tires.
“I came because I’m trying to do anything to feel that I took part in getting people’s rights and voicing all that’s inside me,” said 20-year-old Ahmed Emad, whose two friends were killed in Port Said. “If I sit at home, I will explode after all I’ve seen.”
The death toll from Friday’s violence rose to six. That figure included a security officer in Cairo, according to the official MENA news agency.
One protester in Cairo was killed after being hit by birdshot at close range, a volunteer doctor said on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal.
Four protesters died in Suez after police opened fire on a crowd of about 3,000 demonstrators in front of police headquarters, according to local health officials. A third protester in Suez was in critical condition with a wound to the neck.
The Port Said soccer riot began when fans of the home team, Al-Masry, stormed the field after their club defeated Al-Ahly, one of Cairo’s top teams. Police in black uniforms and riot gear were seen in television video broadcast nationwide standing by and largely doing nothing amid the chaos.
The bloodshed — the worst in the soccer world in 15 years — enraged protesters who were already frustrated with the slow pace of reform by the military leaders.
A network of zealous Al-Ahly soccer fans known as Ultras, who were prominent police foes during the uprising, accused the security forces of deliberately allowing the Al-Masry supporters to attack.
Some lawmakers suggested the military allowed the attack to happen to show the need for a reinstatement of the recently abolished emergency laws, in which the police enjoyed nearly unlimited power.
For their part, police are resentful of the abuse they suffered during the uprising and they also fear being criticized or even prosecuted if they use excessive force, something that was tolerated and encouraged under Mubarak.
Activist Nour Nour said Interior Ministry officials “failed in providing security but have been successful in protecting what they want to protect.”
The ruling generals, for their part, have accused a “third party” and “foreign hands” of being behind acts of violence.
Tantawi said incidents like the soccer violence “happen anywhere in the world. We will not let those behind it go. ... This will not affect Egypt and its security.”
The police failure to prevent the soccer riot was the bloodiest example of a series of security lapses as crime has surged since the uprising.
Two American tourists and their tour guide were abducted at gunpoint Friday and held for several hours by Bedouin tribesmen in a brazen daylight attack along a busy highway in the Sinai desert, dealing another blow to Egypt’s already battered tourism industry.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Naguib, the head of security for southern Sinai, said the three were taken from a minivan while traveling from St. Catherine’s Monastery to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
They were released hours later after promises by security officials to look into their demands, which include the release of a number of fellow tribesmen arrested this week on drug trafficking and robbery charges.
Bedouins have long complained of discrimination and random arrests by the government, and the Sinai was restive even under Mubarak, but the kidnappings of the Americans and other recent high-profile attacks signaled an escalation.
Elsewhere on the Sinai Peninsula, four masked gunmen stopped the vehicle of two Italian workers for a food factory in the city of Suez, taking their car, more than $13,000 and their laptops, said company director Mohammed Antar. The Italians were not harmed.
On Monday, there was a series of major thefts in Cairo, including armed robberies at two banks and a mail office.
Adel Shokry, the secretary general of the south Sinai Hotel Association, said the general security situation in the country is “pitiful.”
“I think there is plenty of lawlessness. The security agencies are not working as efficiently as they had before. They must review their positions,” he said. “I think the army must step in to fill in this security vacuum.”
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