New York Times – Egypt’s new government lost control of a major city, Port Said, on Saturday as rampaging soccer fans attacked the main jail, drove police officers from the streets and cut off all access to the city.
Set off by the sentencing of 21 Port Said soccer fans to death, the rioting was the sharpest challenge yet to the efforts of Egypt’s new Islamist rulers to re-establish order after the two years of turmoil that have followed the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic president.
By evening, fighting in the streets had left at least 30 people dead, mostly from gunfire, and injured more than 300. Residents said they were afraid to leave their homes. Doctors said the local hospital was overloaded with casualties and pleaded for help. Rioters sacked and burned a police barracks; attacked police stations, the Port Said power plant and the jail, where the convicted men were being held; and closed off all roads to the city as well as the railroad station.
President Mohamed Morsi canceled a foreign trip to deal with the crisis at home and instead met with the National Defense Council, which includes the nation’s top military leaders. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry acknowledged that its security forces were unable to control the violence and urged that political leaders to try to calm the rioters.
By 8 p.m., a spokesman for the Egyptian military said its troops had moved in and secured vital facilities, including the prison, the Mediterranean port, and the Suez Canal. But in telephone interviews, residents said the streets remained lawless. “I’m worried for my sister and mother,” said Ahmed Zangir, 21. “I could run or do something, but it is not safe for them to get out.”
Mr. Zangir added: “Thugs are abusing the opportunity. They are everywhere.”
Friday was the second anniversary of the revolt that toppled Mr. Mubarak, an occasion that had already set off clashes between protesters and security forces in Cairo and other cities. Those battles began Thursday and continued for a third day on Saturday in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. In Suez, where two police officers and seven protesters were killed on Friday, protesters attacked police stations and attempted to set fire to a central security building.
The anniversary battles were fueled by a combination of hostility toward the country’s new Islamist leaders and frustration with the meager rewards of the revolution so far. But those battles were more isolated, typically confined to just a few blocks around symbols of government power, like the Interior Ministry headquarters in Cairo or the headquarters of the provincial government in Suez.
In contrast, the escalating chaos that enveloped Port Said over the soccer riot sentencing posed a far greater challenge to the Islamist leaders, who have pledged a new era of respect for the law.
It was unclear how the fledgling government might regain control of the city without either a brutal crackdown on the mob or capitulation to its demands. And either alternative could further inflame the streets in Cairo and around Egypt.
The information minister said the National Defense Council had the authority to impose a curfew or a state of emergency over any trouble spot. But in an illustration of the political risks to any perception of a crackdown, a spokesman for the president, Yassir Ali, declared a few hours later that there was no intention to impose a curfew on Port Said.
In a television interview, Gen. Osama Ismail, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, acknowledged that the violence had spiraled beyond the control of the security forces. “The solution isn’t a security solution,” he said. “We urge the political and patriotic leaders and forces to intervene to calm the situation.”
The case that set off the riot grew out of a deadly brawl last February between rival groups of hard-core fans of soccer teams from Cairo and Port Said at a match in Port Said. The hard-core fans, called Ultras, are known for their appetite for violence against either rival fans or the police. Some had smuggled knives and other weapons into the stadium, security officials said at the time.
Seventy-four people were killed and over 1,000 injured in the soccer riot. Many died after being trampled under the stampeding crowds or falling from stadium balconies, according to forensic testimony later reported in the state news media.
It was the worst soccer riot in Egyptian history and among the worst in the world. Many political figures, including members of Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, initially sought to blame a counterrevolutionary conspiracy orchestrated by Mubarak loyalists or the Interior Ministry.
But prosecutors ultimately charged 21 Port Said fans with attacking their Cairo rivals and charged nine security officers with negligence. On Saturday, a judge in Cairo convicted the 21 fans of murder before passing sentence. Six of them remain fugitives.
The verdict was awaited with acute anxiety because any outcome risked the fury of the Ultras in either Port Said or Cairo. To warn of their wrath if the Port Said defendants were acquitted, the Cairo Ultras staged several raucous protests last week in anticipation of the verdict, temporarily closing bridges and subways lines and threatening the Egyptian stock exchange.
The trial was held in Cairo instead of Port Said because of the fear of violence between the two groups of Ultras. For the same reason, the Interior Ministry declined to transfer the defendants to the Cairo courtroom to hear the verdict, leaving them in detention in their home city.
Most of those killed in Port Said on Saturday died of bullet wounds, hospital officials said. It was unclear who shot first, but witnesses said some of the civilian protesters brought shotguns or homemade firearms to attack the prison. And after two security officers were killed, the gunfire escalated sharply there and around the city, witnesses and officials said. All of the other people killed were believed to be civilians.
Rioters also attacked members of the news media, damaging television cameras and cutting off live broadcasts.
Many said the severity of the penalty was out of step with the light verdicts handed down in high-profile cases against members of the old government. The soccer fans were sentenced to death for a brawl that killed several dozen people. But no police officer or security official has yet been held responsible for the killing of 800 civilian demonstrators during the 18 days of protests two years ago. The only people convicted were Mr. Mubarak and his interior minister, and those verdicts were overturned this month.
“Where are the officers of the Ministry of Interior and the military council in this verdict?” Mahmoud Affifi, a spokesman for the left-leaning April 6 group, told the state newspaper Al Ahram, referring to the generals who ruled Egypt for 18 months after Mr. Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group allied with Mr. Morsi, said in a statement that it blamed the news media for inciting violence against legitimately elected authorities. The group also castigated leaders of the political opposition for “silence instead of condemning these crimes, and even in some cases welcoming them.”
Those plotting the violence “must be condemned by all members of the society, and they must be held accountable according to the provisions of the law,” the Brotherhood said. “It’s incomprehensible to demand the rights of the martyrs by adding more martyrs and victims.”
Adding to the popular outrage over the verdict, the judge hearing the case, Sobhi Abdel Megeed, had imposed a complete ban on publishing or broadcasting news from the last two months of the soccer riot trial, including details of the charges, evidence or judicial reasoning.
On Saturday, Judge Megeed noted again that the court had asked the public prosecutor “to move criminal cases against anybody who would violate the publishing ban, no matter what their position is.”
Most in Cairo had expected an acquittal. Speculation had centered on the wrath of the capital’s Ultras if their attackers walked free. Instead, families of those killed in the soccer riot who were in the courtroom erupted in jubilation when hearing the news of the death penalty. Relatives held pictures of the victims in the air. Some danced and chanted. A few fainted. And the Ultras celebrated for hours outside their team’s headquarters in Cairo.