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How Egypt’s Soccer Violence Fits Into its Political Unrest

February 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
New violence erupted Thursday in Cairo after a soccer riot killed scores of fans in Port Said. Ray Suarez and Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal explore how the distrust and anger among the country's police, soccer hooligans, political protesters and the military overlap and fit into Egypt's overall "unfinished revolution."
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JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, Ray Suarez talked with Wall Street Journal correspondent Matt Bradley in Cairo.

RAY SUAREZ: Matt Bradley, welcome.

Has last night’s violence in Port Said trailed into the Egyptian capital? What’s happening tonight on the streets of Cairo?

MATT BRADLEY, The Wall Street Journal: Well, we’re seeing a pattern emerge.

This is the third time that we’ve seen a lot of violence in the past couple of months directed at the police. So, right now, we’re seeing a return to the street by mostly angry youths who are very upset with the police and they’re somewhat disconnected from the political forces that have been dominating the protests so far in the past year.

So, it’s a little different now, though, because now we have a parliament that’s sitting and that’s kind of undergirding these demands for justice and for discipline to be taken upon the security forces, the minister of interior, and the prime minister.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the connection between the violence on the soccer field that started last night and what you’re seeing now on the streets of Egyptian cities?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, essentially, the anger that is overflowing now on to the streets of Cairo comes from the fact that the Ultras, which are essentially what you call football hooligans in Britain or soccer hooligans in the United States, these Ultras feel that the military regime and the police didn’t do enough to protect them when the — when other fans, opposing fans in the northern city of Port Said attacked the opposing bleachers.

And, of course, we know that 74 people died, at least. And so the fallout and the anger really has to do with the negligence of the security forces and what they didn’t do, rather than what they did do.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the world has long been familiar, sadly, with violence at soccer stadiums, from Latin America to Africa to Western Europe. But is this somehow different? Does this come with political overtones that perhaps those other incidents don’t have?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, this is different only really in the sense that — that Egypt is going through a very tumultuous political situation right now.

So it’s not so different from just a regular outpouring of violent rage at a soccer game. Really, that’s what it was. That’s what we saw on the videos of fans rushing the field. So, it’s no different in that sense. But the translation of the deaths and the way that this nation is dealing with this event, that’s a dramatically different affair and will be every time there’s violence in the streets of Egypt, because it’s always going to be connected with the animosity that’s displayed by the Egyptian public toward the security forces.

RAY SUAREZ: If we go back to last year, were those die-hard fans you call the Ultras involved in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak?

MATT BRADLEY: Yes, they were.

They were on the front lines of that uprising. But, of course, there were quite a lot of people who were part of that uprising. And so now we’re seeing things a little differently in the past few months. Ever since last summer, if you remember, there was a lot of violence in front of the Israeli Embassy.

And a lot of people were killed. And, eventually, the Israeli ambassador was forced to evacuate the country. The Ultras really started their sort of front-line activism right there. That was when they took such a very prominent role, and they recurringly did that throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall and into the winter, as we’re seeing now.

The clashes in Tahrir Square right before the parliamentary elections, they were on the front lines then. In the middle of the parliamentary elections in December, they played a very prominent role. And all of this has to do with this ongoing vendetta between these Ultras, these football hooligans and the police.

RAY SUAREZ: What possible interests could the police or the army, which still runs the government, have in allowing something like this to happen? Isn’t it all downside for them, if you stoke popular anger by your lack of control, both of the society and of a soccer game?

MATT BRADLEY: Yes, it doesn’t look good for the military. It doesn’t look good for the Ministry of Interior, as there are parliamentarians who are now calling for the minister of interior to resign.

But at the same time, a lot of the protesters, a lot of the activists are saying that this was a deliberate effort by the military regime or by the Ministry of Interior to cause violence. And the reason why they’re saying that is because, recently, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who is the de facto president of Egypt, he partially lifted the emergency law.

And the minister of interior has been in front of parliament saying that the emergency law, which allows the police broad powers to investigate and to detain criminals without charge, that this should be put back. And now a lot of activists are saying that this violence was staged in part to bolster arguments by the government and by members of the former regime that this draconian law enforcement measure needs to be put back into place.

And at the same time, others are saying that the police simply didn’t intervene because they wanted to teach these Ultras, these sort of football hooligans, a lesson. These Ultras have been, as I mentioned earlier, very active on the front lines of anti-military and anti-police protesters throughout the past couple of months.

So it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that the police might want to step aside and sort of show the Ultras what they would be up to, what would happen to them without police protection. But really one of the lines that the police have used in the defense of themselves is that every time they step into a violent fray like this, they end up busting heads and they end up taking the blame for the deaths of protesters.

So at the end of the day, it’s not really in the police’s interest to involve themselves in a very violent skirmish between incensed, angry fans, because they’re going to end up taking the blame. Of course, they’re ending up taking the blame anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, of course now there’s blowback on the Egyptian establishment. Have any top officials had to pay with their jobs for what happened last night in Port Said?

MATT BRADLEY: The governor of Port Said, he has resigned. Some of his top security staff have resigned.

The entire board of the Egyptian football association, they have had to resign — or they were sacked — it’s not entirely clear. And it looks like this sort of pattern of recrimination is going to continue. There’s going to be hell to pay for this one — 74 people died for a seemingly non-political, useless act.

And so the Egyptian public is going to really want to see those responsible hung out to dry. And they’re not going to take no for an answer. And so the couple of people in Port Said who have already resigned or already been pushed out of their positions, they’re probably the first of several more.

RAY SUAREZ: Matt Bradley covers Egypt for the Wall Street Journal. He joins us from Cairo.

Thanks.

MATT BRADLEY: Thank you.