Port Said, the city at the northern entrance of the Suez Canal, has seen its share of pain. In 1956 it was the centre of Egyptian resistance to the Tri-Partite Aggression. Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967 turned it into a war zone and shut down the canal, its main source of income; the city was evacuated. Even after the 1973 war restored some Egyptian pride, and Anwar Sadat gave the city duty-free status as a reward for its sacrifices, Port Said never really regained its old cosmopolitanism. After an alleged assassination attempt against Hosni Mubarak in 1999 – many people believe the ‘assassin’, who was shot dead by security forces, was carrying a letter for the president, not a weapon – some of the fiscal privileges were withdrawn.
After the violence at Port Said’s football stadium last night, in which at least 74 people were killed and more than 1000 wounded, it isn’t surprising to see so many Egyptians not only decry the lack of adequate policing at the stadium, but accuse the police and the military of having manufactured the whole thing.
Port Said’s football team, al-Masri (‘the Egyptian’), has a historic enmity with al-Ahly (‘the national’), who are top of the Egyptian League. Their fans have fought in the past, and there were warnings that Ultras would be showing up last night. It usually takes hours to get in as fans are searched for weapons, but witnesses say this time security was rudimentary. Videos of the clashes show that riot police did little or nothing as al-Masri’s supporters took over the pitch after the winning goal, and attacked al-Ahly fans. It’s unclear how many of the deaths were caused by stampeding and how many by attacks with knives and clubs. Port Said residents took to the streets today, saying that their sons were not behind the violence. But if they weren’t, who was? Fingers are being pointed at infiltrators from the security forces.
Across Egypt, there are regular clashes between protesters and security forces, who seem to be provoking rather than calming the violence. Crime of all sorts – kidnappings, bank robberies – is on the rise. Many Egyptians were happy to have the army step in to guarantee basic security, but on this it has drastically failed to deliver. Increasingly, it is not just the protesters in Tahrir Square but many ordinary Egyptians who are wondering if the army is allowing – or even encouraging – the chaos in order to justify its rule.
On 24 January, the day before Egyptians celebrated the first anniversary of their revolution, Egypt’s interim ruler, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawy, announced that the Emergency Law which has given security services extraordinary powers for the last 30 years would be lifted – except in cases of ‘thuggery’. It was hard not to be reminded of the way Mubarak and his cronies used to argue, as opposition to the Emergency Law mounted, that it would only be used against terrorists and drug dealers.
Until yesterday, the top concern in Cairo was the mounting tension between revolutionary protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) now controls 46 per cent of parliament and is in a position to negotiate – alone if it wants to – the terms by which the military will transfer power to civilians later this year. The protest movement wants an immediate handover of power, either to a senior judge as interim president, to parliament, or to a president to be elected as soon as possible – and certainly earlier than 15 June, the date the generals have set for a presidential election. The Brothers, along with the more hardline Salafi Islamists, were sticking with the military schedule, but what happened last night has changed that.
In a special session of parliament today, the idea of forming a government of national salvation was discussed. MPs, including those of the FJP, also want to sack the interior minister and interrogate the chief of intelligence. It is as yet unclear whether they have the power – legally or practically – to do this, and what it might mean for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But it is a first sign of confrontation between the Brothers and the SCAF, and is encouraging the Tahrir protesters to hold fast to their demand for accountability and civilian rule sooner rather than later.
The idea that an Egyptian deep state has been manipulating public fear of chaos is not new. Convicted criminals were released during last year’s uprising in order to terrify ordinary Egyptians into rejecting calls for Mubarak’s resignation. The later violent crackdowns against anti-military protesters seemed to be fairly widely accepted, as people blamed revolutionaries for perpetuating the insecurity. But the reaction to the Port Said stadium massacre shows that the silent majority’s trust in Egypt’s military rulers is waning fast.