Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tahrir 2011 vs. Tahrir 2012

How do you celebrate a revolution that has not yet run its course?

That's the question many Egyptians pondered on January 25, 2012, which is the subject of a blog post I wrote for Beyond Borders, a multimedia website with reports from around the world. My piece compared the atmosphere in Tahrir to the climate surrounding the one-year anniversary.

Check it out: "Tahrir one year later: Celebrating what?"

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A soccer game turns violent

Nearly 80 people died and over 1,000 were injured last night in Port Said, the Mediterranean port city on the northern end of the Suez Canal, after spectators at a soccer game stormed the field and attacked rival fans in the most deadly outbreak of violence in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's downfall. Dozens were reportedly stabbed, suffocated, or fell to their deaths. When another match last night in Cairo was called off as a result, people responding by setting the main stadium in the capital on fire.

Hardcore supporters of the team that seemed to be on the receiving end of the violence, the Cairo powerhouse Al Ahly, are reportedly amassing now in and near downtown Cairo. Tahrir Square is closed off to traffic, and it's clear that soccer fans will play a large role in demonstrations today and already expected protests tomorrow. When the super-excitable "Ultras," as the hardcore Ahly fans are known, are involved, the situation becomes much more volatile; they led the march to the Israeli embassy back in September, and they've also been present at some of the more violent clashes near Tahrir.

The newly minted Egyptian parliament held an emergency session today, and many politicians faulted the police and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for failing to uphold security and creating a perception that the military was needed to ensure stability. I asked a worker in my building, a middle-aged man repairing a couch and some chairs, what he thought of the events in Port Said. An Ahly fan, Isma'il said he truly believed Mubarak and his thugs were to blame for a conspiracy to destabilize Egypt. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood hinted at the role of "foreign fingers" in sowing unrest.

From eyewitness accounts, photos, and video, it appears that the police did not, in fact, do much -- or anything, really -- to stop the violence once it started, leading to more casualties. It's possible they might have provoked it by not having many policemen on hand despite indications things could spiral out of control between two rivals. On top of all this, there was bad blood between the Ultras and the police: The two have violently clashed in the past, and the Ultras are often on the front lines fighting the police when there's violence downtown.

I think, though, that it's dangerous to jump on the conspiracy bandwagon and place all the blame with the police and the SCAF. It's not like the police rushed the field and attacked. The fans did: regular Egyptians and soccer hooligans alike.

As Egypt mourns, I think back to the first -- and only -- Egyptian soccer game I ever attended, in December. As we arrived at the stadium for the match between the Arab Contractors (I kid you not) and Zamalek, Ahly's arch rival and another Cairo powerhouse, fans who wanted to get in for free started pelting the ticket booth with rocks. Chaos ensued until people calmed down, but when we entered the gates, phalanxes of police lined the way in. Our Egyptian friends held us back as the police herded chanting fans through security checkpoints.

Hundreds of policemen lined the field and stood guard in the stands and outside the stadium, and the halftime show consisted of dozens of policemen marching in and standing in front of the rowdy Zamalek supporters, the most hardcore of whom are called "White Knights." Even during this relatively insignificant game, hundreds of policemen watched as the fans set off flares in the stands, lighting up the area behind the goal with an eery red glow.

The rowdiness during that game and my general experience with out-of-control crowds of Egyptian shabaab, or youth, leads me to think that its not necessary correct to read this outbreak of violence as solely a symptom of a poor policing and a weak security environment. Maybe there are more complex, social problems at play, issues that are currently missing from the national dialogue.