Protesters in Port Said tried to block the Suez Canal and deadly riots broke out in Cairo on Saturday after a judge upheld the death sentences for 21 people involved in Egypt’s worst ever football crowd disaster and jailed a further 24.
The unrest follows a month of violence in the northern Egyptian city where more than 50 people have already been killed and hundreds injured in clashes with police.
On Saturday, Port Said residents set loose boats, attempted to block the Suez with ferries, and attacked the city’s stadium after the verdict. In Cairo, hardcore football fans set on fire a police building and two restaurants, and blocked several roads and one of the city’s main bridges. At least two people died during the ensuing clashes with police.
The fighting is part of the fallout from a stadium disaster in February last year, in which more than 70 fans of Cairo club Ahly FC were killed in rioting and crushes after a game against Port Said’s Masry FC. Twenty-one Masry fans were condemned to death in January for their role in that riot – a verdict that sparked a bloodbath in which at least 40 people died, and set in motion a month of civil disobedience. Throughout February, Port Said has been paralysed by strikes, school walkouts and further clashes that have seen government offices set alight and ransacked. Port Said residents have resorted to civil disobedience because they believe that those condemned in January’s verdict were sacrificed in order to placate the restive Ahly fans in Cairo.
That feeling of injustice was exacerbated by Sunday’s verdict, which was met by screams of horror from Port Said residents watching on television in cafes across the city.
Many felt their friends had convicted for nothing. “Twenty-five years for someone helping to carry the dead outside the stadium,” said Mohamed Ataya, a Port Said fan alluding to the case of his friend – jailed on Sunday – who Ataya said was not involved in the violence. “They are sacrificing us to satisfy Cairo.”
Across town, Port Said ultras targeted their own stadium in anger. “Some of them were just throwing rocks – and yet they have been sentenced to death,” said Nader, one of the ultras, who declined to give his surname.
“What we need now is to separate from the rest of the country,” added Ataya, whose feeling of estrangement from the rest of Egypt is matched by many in Port Said.
“Port Said is always targeted, the city and all its people,” said Mona Metwaly at a funeral procession for one of those killed this week. “They don’t count Port Said as part of Egypt.”
Hundreds gathered outside the local government headquarters following the verdict carrying flags that called for the creation of an independent state of Port Said. Residents feel scapegoated by not just the verdict, but also the military curfew enforced in the city since violence erupted in January. Opposite the burnt-out government headquarters, which was badly damaged this week, there hangs a quotation from the Qur’an that sums up Port Said’s feeling of isolation: “A few people can beat the many.”
Others dragged a donkey through the streets daubed with the words “Fuck Ahly”.
But in Cairo, Ahly fans were themselves angered by the verdict. At first they set off fireworks in celebration. But soon sourness set in, as the Cairo fans realised that 28 Port Said supporters had been acquitted, and that only two of the nine police officers on trial had been convicted.