“Some people think that football is a matter of life and death; I think they are stupid. Football is far more serious a subject than that!” Those were the words of Bill Shankley. You will often find them in the humorous quotes section. But I found no quote more appropriate to start off this post after the recent events in Egypt where 13,000 home fans stormed the football pitch in Port Said armed with knives and machetes claiming the lives of 74 young men.
Loyalty to country and to football club! These are the two loyalties in Egypt which cross sectarian, social and class structures. The main flag and the sub flags. But it was still hard to write about football, fans, revolution and death all in one post. It wouldn’t have readily occurred to me what they all had in common. However, links between football and politics are not new – some more serious than others and some more deadly than others. Egypt is not unique in this. Keeping aside the difference in detail and circumstance, one only needs to remember the infamous Winnie Mandela’s United Football Club and their bloodthirsty rhetoric in South Africa. Winnie’s bittering relationship with the Mass Democratic Movement in the 1980’s involved the conflict centered largely by her infamous Mandela United Football Club.
Coincidentally, the Port Said disaster took place on the first anniversary of the camel battle of Mubarak’s loyalists into Tahrir Square. It made the seventy-four deaths personal to those holding not only the football team flag but also the flag seen at the top; the flag held over and above. 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 Egyptian uprising – against Mubarak’s security forces. Many on the streets saw the deaths of the Ahly Ultras as punishment for their role in the revolution and not an unfortunate accident.
Tahrir Square once again became the home of the angry, the bereaved and the helpless. Rivals Ahly and Zamalek put hostilities aside and fans stood side by side once again at the frontlines. They marched from outside their respective clubs to Tahrir and, faithfully, Egypt demonstrated its solidarity. Again the square made its calling and again it claimed more lives – at least four more people were killed on Friday and the Ministry of Health announced around 1500 injured between Wednesday and Friday.
The lack of security has been at the centre of public debate since the overthrow of Mubarak. It has been the reason the silent majority has remained silent; in hope that quietening the revolution would have it returned. But, subsequent disorder, from attacks on Coptic churches to the abductions, robberies and muggings, has been seen as characteristic of deeply uncertain times. Whether or not the Port Said massacre was deliberately coordinated should not be the focus. The truth of why this happened may always remain unknown, but how it happened is clear: in a city where the head of security was changed four days before the match, in an audience that did not include any officials, 6000 men, without tickets, were allowed into stadiums with weapons, doors were closed on an unarmed crowd, and as a result 74 young men were stabbed and crushed to death.
Whether the conspiracy theorists have, or haven’t got it right, responsibility for the Port Said events should lay with those who claim responsibility for the countries safety and security. Failure to acknowledge this, on the part of the government or the people, poses further threat to the future of Egypt’s stability. The police know, from past events, that they will not have to answer for the fatalities. The massacre and the lack of responsibility raise grave issues of competence, accountability and trust. Political crime or football riot, the consequences will have a big part to play in the fast paced shifting of Egypt’s political landscape.