Who to Blame? Understanding the Massacre at Port Said

When last I posted, I was cautiously optimistic about the anniversary of the January 25 revolution. As the days passed with only minor scuffles, I breathed an internal sigh of relief. The worst was over, and we were on track for a peaceful post-revolutionary year.  That relief, however, was premature. The bloodbath that I expected didn’t fail to take place, it was simply postponed.

On Wednesday evening a football match in Port Said ended in horrific violence, with 73 people dead and over a thousand people injured. Egypt’s population is grieving,  shocked, and outraged, and  they’ve  taken to the streets. Predictably, a number of these peaceful marches have been met with birdshot and tear gas from security forces. In the 48 hours since the massacre took place, at least seven people have died in Cairo and Suez.  I expect the protests—and the counterfighting that goes with the protests—to continue for several more days.

What actually happened in Port Said? It’s difficult to say. So many different versions of the story have circulated since the massacre took place that it’s nearly impossible to know the truth.

The verifiable facts of the situation are these: at the end of the match, between the local underdog al-Masry team that won against the powerful al-Ahly team from Cairo, people rushed the field from the al-Masry side. The doors between the stands and the field were open, which they should not have been. The security presence was lower than normal.  Police in riot gear failed to intervene. The lights were extinguished. The doors to exit the stadium were locked.

And fifteen minutes later, seventy-three people were either stabbed, suffocated, or trampled to death.

What actually happened? Who can we blame? Which of the many conflicting narratives can we possibly believe?

In the first version of the story, the massacre was just a football match gone wrong. Small fights are common at nearly every game. One of my Egyptian friends told me that random fistfights and projectiles were “part of the experience” of going to a match.  This game, for whatever reason, had insufficient and/or inexperienced security that made all the wrong decisions when faced with a commonplace sports riot. Tensions are running high in Egypt right now, and things got out of hand. It could have happened anywhere, in any country, without enough security to keep the fans contained. Shame that it had to happen here.  But why was the security so lax? Why haven’t other matches since last January had similar levels of violence? And why was the attack instigated by fans of the winning team?

In the second version of the story, the massacre was a premeditated event. Someone—the most popular candidate is SCAF and/or the remnants of the old Mubarak regime—brought in thugs from the outside, armed with knives, and positioned them near the open gates to the pitch so that they’d be poised and ready to do their worst as soon as the game was complete, regardless of who won. The absence of security was deliberate, as was the inaction of whatever forces were present. Doors were closed to prevent people from escaping. The lights were turned out so that no video cameras would be able capture the truth.

Motivations in this theory vary. The al-Ahly fans known as the Ultras have been prominent in Egypt’s ongoing protests. By attacking them, SCAF could get rid of some of its strongest and most vocal opponents. A number of Cairo revolutionaries see the attack as the beginning of a revenge plot against participants in the revolution. Others see the attack as part of a pattern of violent crime that has arisen since January 24, when the government revoked the “state of emergency” under which Egypt has been ruled for the last 30 years. In the last week, there have been multiple bank robberies—a type of large-scale crime nearly unheard-of in Egypt up until now. Many believe that the upswing in violent crime is being orchestrated so that SCAF can justify re-instating emergency law, and ultimately justify maintaining its own power rather than transferring power to a civilian government. But if SCAF wants to demonstrate how necessary it is for maintaining stability, why carry out such a breach in its role of protection?

And today, the state-run Nile News TV channel declared that the football massacre was orchestrated by US and German spies as retaliation for the raids on NGOs. Invisible foreign hands were at work to try to undermine the integrity of the nascent government and push their own political agenda. But would foreign spies really give a damn about a football match? And aren’t the people of Egypt capable of rioting on their own?

It’s hard to know what to believe out of all these conflicting information streams. Each one is plausible, to a certain extent, and each one is problematic. Like all situations with multiple narratives, the truth lies somewhere in between the different lines. We may never discover what the truth really is. But one common theme is that everyone wants to point the finger at someone else, to distance themselves from this horrible event. Whose fault was it? Blame the football fans, blame hired thugs, blame the police, blame SCAF, blame foreign spies, blame someone. Anyone. Because no one wants to accept responsibility for such a heinous event. No one wants to accept that they might have had a role, however small.

Everywhere, everyone makes the same refrain: “It was other people, bad people, not us.”

Not us.

I do not believe in such things as “good people” and “bad people.” I believe only in the existence of people, full stop. People, who are capable of both good and bad actions. People, and the choices they make, based on the situations that they find themselves in.

Whatever happened on Wednesday, it was the result of human agency. People. Making choices.

I do not pretend to know who instigated the attacks, whether or not they were premeditated, who made the myriad decisions that ended in disaster. All I know is that these decisions were made by people, individually and collectively. And the repercussions of those decisions will scar Egypt for a very, very long time.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Who to Blame? Understanding the Massacre at Port Said”

  1. This is a really interesting summary, Laura… Thanks for writing. Just reading the facts, the locked doors and lights being turned off clearly indicate premeditation of some sort by someone. Truly a tragedy made all the worse by the inability to honestly confront the source.

    1. Yeah…I’m fairly certain that it was premeditated, particularly since this scale of violence is at a game is really unprecedented. It’s really just a question of who and why.

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