Was Egypt's soccer tragedy political 'payback' for a group that crossed the military?

The Globe and Mail

The body of a victim of clashes at a soccer stadium is seen outside a morgue in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012. (Mohammed Asad/AP/Mohammed Asad/AP)

The tragedy in the Egyptian seaside city of Port Said, where two rival soccer teams met Wednesday for a much-anticipated match that ended in at least 74 deaths at the stadium, has had far-reaching fallout already.

There has been debate in parliament, street protests in Cairo, suspension of all league soccer games, and televised condolences by the ruling military council and promises of a thorough investigation and justice for those responsible for the violence.

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But for the Cairo-based al-Ahly soccer club supporters who traveled to Port Said to see their team lose 3-1, there is no doubt the violence carried out against their 1,200 supporters was payback by Egyptian military for their role in ongoing street protests.

The al-Ahly club supporters are, in fact, soccer fanatics turned political actors who have played a key role during the Egyptian revolution a year ago and at every flash-point since.

Young men, or the ‘Ultras’ as they are known, have taken their message to the streets – that the gains of the revolution cannot be turned back by the military – and regularly clashed with the police in the streets and alleys around Tahrir Square.

At the match in Port Said on Wednesday between visiting al-Ahly team and the home team al-Masry, the ‘Ultras’ say riot police stood by and did little to stop the violence on the soccer field against the visiting team and its fans.

The morning after, their rage was aimed at Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military leadership that has been running the country since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak: “We want your head, you traitor Tantawi,” was written on the Facebook page of the Ultras Tahrir Square.

The point was also shared by some supporters of the Port Said soccer team: “The Ultras were the target (on Wednesday). This was a setup for them, a massacre. The military council and the security forces are the only parties held accountable for such events.”

As the Ultras returned from Port Said to the capital by train, they brought with them stories of what had unfolded on the soccer field and questions over how weapons were allowed in to the stadium.

“They came at us with machetes and knives ... they threw some of us from the fourth floor,” one returning fan told the private TV station ONTV, as reported by AP.

“Everyone was beating us. They were beating us from inside and outside, with fireworks, stones, metal bars, and some had knives, I swear,” another fan said.

Over a year ago, soccer fanatics belonging to the al-Ahly and the other Cairo team, Zamalek, played a key role street protests, using years of clashes with police around soccer games to push back a police crackdown on street protests.

They were among the front-line protesters during clashes with police in Tahrir Square a year ago.

During those dramatic days of revolution, pro-Mubarak supporters attempted to expel protesters from Tahrir Square with stone-throwing mobs, and at one point, riding in to the square on the back of camels. The Ultras were instrumental in helping repel those attacks.

In the lead-up to historic parliamentary elections in Novembers, protesters once again took the streets over what they perceived at the ruling military’s attempt to undo the gains of the revolution.

In cat-and-mouse scenes in the streets leading to Tahrir Square, Ultras clashed with military police for several days, as the police and protesters charged at each other for control of the streets around the hated interior ministry.

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