Wednesday's lethal soccer riots in the Suez Canal town of Port Said, which left more than 73 spectators and security personnel dead, marks a watershed moment in Egypt after the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. This tragedy is not simply a story of a match gone horribly awry: It will have important and wide-ranging political ramifications, further isolate militant, highly politicized, violence-prone fan groups, single out the police for renewed criticism, and strengthen calls for the imposition of law and order.
Initial reports said the violence erupted during a match between storied Cairo club Al Ahly, Egypt's most popular team, and Premier League team Al Masry, with only a minimal number of security forces in the stadium. While Wednesday's deadly incident constitutes the worst soccer-related violence in an Egyptian stadium in the country's history, it is not the first time that militant fan groups -- or "ultras," modeled on similar groups in Italy and Serbia -- have invaded the pitch. The incident is but one of a series of violent events involving soccer fans since Mubarak's fall.
As in April, when fans of Al Ahly's arch-rival Zamalek club invaded the pitch during the post-Mubarak era's first African Cup match against a Tunisian team, rumors were swirling in Egypt about the reasons for Wednesday's incident. Some Egyptians speculated that the security forces deliberately allowed the clashes to take place to prove that the police are needed to avoid a breakdown of law and order. Others suggested that Egypt's military rulers engineered the lack of a police presence in a bid to provoke the ultras and further undermine their credibility in a protest-weary country frustrated with the country's downward economic spiral.
Neither assumption is totally off the wall. Ultras clashed with security forces in Egyptian stadiums almost weekly for the four years before Mubarak's fall and have been engaged in running battles in the past year in which scores of people were killed and thousands wounded. Ultras played a key role in the 18-day uprising and afterwards, including the storming of State Security Services offices in February, the hours-long siege of the Israeli Embassy in September, and in street clashes near Tahrir Square in November and December, in which more than 50 people were killed and thousands injured.
The stakes are high for the ultras, with leaders effectively having lost control of a rank and file that has swelled in recent years with thousands of disaffected, unemployed, and often uneducated youth who believe it is payback time against a police force that is widely despised (the ultras' motto: "All Cops Are Bastards"). After the clashes at the Tunisia match in April, in which no one was killed, the leaders discussed suspending their activities. They are certain to take pause after the shocking number of deaths in Port Said.
But can they rein in the radicals? Beyond the payback factor, the absence of security in the stadiums means that for the first time in their history, the ultras own the venue. At the slightest provocation -- a controversial decision by a referee, for example -- the crowd goes berserk. That is all the more true for militant fans who see themselves as the club's only true supporters and view managers as Mubarak appointees and players as hired guns who will switch allegiance whenever another club makes a better offer.
The violence of the ultras is directed as much against those of rival clubs as it is against the security forces. The anti-Mubarak protests of a year ago were the first time that fans of Ahly, which was founded in the early 20th century as the club of the nationalists and opponents of British colonial rule, and its fierce rival Zamalek, the club of the Brits, their Egyptian associates, and the monarchy, set their differences aside to stand shoulder-by-shoulder in Tahrir Square. Ahead of an upcoming match scheduled for Feb. 7, Zamalek's ultras, the White Knights, last week called on their Ahlawy counterparts to agree to a truce. "We are asking for an end to the bloodshed and to reconcile and unite for the sake of Egypt," the White Knights said in a statement on their Facebook page. Ultras Ahlawy replied with a smiley.
The match is now -- wisely -- suspended, but the exchange signaled awareness on the part of the ultras' leaders that the time had come to bury their war hatchets. They know that Egyptians are growing increasing intolerant of their violence and militancy, as evidenced by recent Gallup and other polls. Wednesday's violence suggests that the rank and file see matters differently, and will not take direction from anyone.
The conspiracy theorists may be on to something: The riots in Port Said will likely strengthen the hand of those in the ruling military council who want to crack down hard on the ultras, who have formed the backbone of street protests that have not quieted down even though Egypt has seated an elected parliament and will soon choose a new president. And this time, it seems, the Egyptian people will be with them.