Egyptian soccer stadium deaths
Black day for the "White Knights"

Three years after the Port Said catastrophe, Egyptian soccer has again been hit by tragedy. At least 22 fans were killed in a stampede and clashes with police outside a stadium in the capital on Sunday, 8 February. Background details from Karim El-Gawhary in Cairo

"And the winner of the Nobel Prize for impunity is ... Egypt!" wrote human rights lawyer Gamal Eid after the weekend's events, a reflection of the unease felt by many Egyptians after at least 22 young supporters of the Cairo soccer club Zamalek lost their lives in clashes and a stampede outside a stadium in the east of the capital. "Who is responsible?" was the question on everyone's lips.

Videos, which had been posted on the Internet the previous evening and which spread like wildfire, left viewers in a state of shock. One film shows soccer fans stumbling in bewilderment over dozens of corpses, before starting to gather up the dead and tend to the injured. The scene is littered with the blood-smeared shirts of Zamalek fans – who are also known as "White Knights" because of the brilliant white shirts of their team – alongside piles of shoes.

They had come to watch a soccer match between their team and the club ENPPI. But then it all went badly wrong. There are conflicting reports as to what exactly happened.

Members of the security forces at the stadium where riots took place at the weekend (photo: Mohamed El-Shahad/AFP/Getty Images)
Under suspicion: fans and eyewitnesses say the clashes began when security forces tried to herd fans through a narrow gate reinforced with barbed wire. The events are reminiscent of the violent scenes following a match two years ago that left 74 people dead. After that incident, the authorities suspended the league and even banned supporters from attending matches for a time

Conflicting accounts

In the early hours of Monday morning (9 February 2015), a government spokesman explained that fans had tried to get into the stadium without tickets and had been stopped by security forces. This led to a mass panic and stampede in which most of the victims suffocated or were crushed or trampled. The police then admitted that tear gas had been deployed.

It appears that this was not the only method employed to show the fans who was boss. There is video evidence that masked police officers fired shotguns to drive the angry mob back from the entrance to the stadium. Egyptian state television was swift to pin the blame on soccer fans, reporting that they had attempted to enter the stadium without tickets.

But fans and eyewitnesses say the clashes began when security forces tried to herd fans through a narrow gate reinforced with barbed wire. The gate eventually collapsed in the crush. It is alleged that the police then started to push people back using brute force. This led to a mass panic that was further exacerbated by the deployment of tear gas by police trying to gain control of the furious crowd.

The chaotic scenes outside the stadium did not affect the kick-off. Only one Zamalek player, Omar Gaber, refused to come out onto the pitch after hearing about the incident. He has since been indefinitely suspended from play.

A poster depicting the "martyrs" among fans of the Ahly soccer club who were killed in the rebellion against Mubarak in 2011 (photo: Arian Fariborz)
"We will never forget you": Remembering fans of the Ahly soccer club, hailed as fallen revolutionary "martyrs", who died in the anti-Mubarak rebellion. The Ahly ultras were a key force in the demonstrations that toppled the long-time dictator in early 2011

Politicised clubs critical of the regime

Zamalek soccer club board member Ahmad Mansour is also holding the fans responsible for the tragedy. "No one is allowed to attend a match without a valid ticket. Soccer is only for respectable fans. Gangs are not allowed in," he wrote on his Facebook page. In response, a photograph was circulated, also on Facebook, of the corpse of the youngest victim: a seven-year-old boy still clutching a chocolate croissant.

Since the start of the rebellion against long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, relations between the ultra soccer fans of Cairo clubs Zamalek and Ahly and the government and security forces have been tense. Both fan groups played an active role in protests against the regime in 2011; many were killed in the course of the January Revolution in violent confrontations with the police.

A year later, 74 Ahly supporters died in clashes between two groups of fans at the soccer stadium in Port Said. At the time, fans accused the police of deliberately fomenting the violence to avenge the ultras' actions against security forces and the Mubarak regime on Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Soccer in Egypt has become increasingly bound up with politics in recent years, with many fans seen as being critical of the regime. Following the events of last weekend, the Egyptian football association has suspended the football league indefinitely.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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