Protesters clash with Egyptian police over soccer fight

Posted Feb. 02, 2012, at 9:04 p.m.

CAIRO — Throngs of young Egyptians incensed over a deadly melee at a soccer match clashed with security forces outside the Interior Ministry in Cairo on Thursday night as the episode threatened to plunge the country into a new cycle of recriminations and violence.

Protesters focused their rage on the police, who are based in the ministry and who, they charged, were either complicit or negligent in the fight between rivals soccer fans that left at least 74 people dead on Wednesday.

Egyptian officials on Thursday vowed to get to the bottom of Wednesday’s clashes in Port Said and declared a three-day period of mourning.

Wednesday’s bloody fighting followed a string of recent violent incidents that would have been nearly unthinkable during the three decades of autocratic rule under former President Hosni Mubarak. And it highlighted many Egyptians’ concerns about the erosion of security in the country since a council of generals took control a year ago.

Stunned by the evening’s savagery, Egyptians pointed to ominous plots by domestic and foreign agents they accuse of working to undermine the aims of the revolutionaries that dethroned Mubarak. Many blamed the security forces for standing by as fans clashed using knives, rods and other sharp objects. A considerable number of the victims appear to have been crushed to death or slung from b leachers, according to witnesses.

Thursday’s demonstrations were dominated by the young, ardent soccer fans known as “ultras” who have become a fixture of protests targeting the country’s military rulers. They appeared convinced that Wednesday’s fight had been instigated by the generals who have ruled the country since Mubarak’s ouster.

“They killed our youth, they’re killing us,” said Aya Ibrahim, 21, a medical student who was among the thousands who streamed into Tahrir Square on Thursday afternoon. “They are totally responsible. This was planned. We will not allow any more blood to be shed.”

About an hour after the sun set, however, large crowds of young men, many waving flags of regional soccer teams, walked in small groups from Tahrir, the center of last year’s uprising, toward the Interior Ministry headquarters, a few blocks away.

The ministry said in a statement that protesters were trying to tear down barricades to break into the building. Security forces sought to keep them out by firing rubber bullets and tear gas, witnesses said. More than 260 people were injured Thursday night, mostly from tear gas inhalation, a Health Ministry official told state television.

The scenes were reminiscent of deadly clashes in November between riot police and young protesters, many of whom were informally organized under the banner of the soccer teams they support. Those fights were sparked after security forces used aggressive tactics to prevent demonstrators from setting up a permanent protest camp in Tahrir.

The ensuing battles sparked a nationwide revolt against the country’s interim military leaders, who grudgingly pledged to pass most of their power to an elected president in June, a speedier transition to civilian rule than they had originally outlined.

During the past year, Egypt’s security forces have often found themselves in a tough spot. They come under fire when they stand on the sidelines of chaos but also receive harsh criticism when they intervene, sometimes using deadly force.

Many Egyptians saw Thursday’s events as the most dramatic of what they think is an orchestrated wave of politically motivated incidents intended to provide the generals with a justification for delaying the transition to civilian rule.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which won the most seats in the country’s newly elected parliament, issued a statement blaming “dubious forces that still have strong ties with the former regime.” In addition, the statement said, “there are, no doubt, foreign fingers that failed to take control of the Egyptian revolution.”

Mahmoud Ghozlan, a senior member and spokesman for the Brotherhood, said he thinks foreign groups unhappy with the leading role of Islamists in post-revolutionary Egyptian politics are resorting to sabotage.

“Foreign hands are paying money and training youth abroad to teach them to topple regimes, take down parliament and stage riots,” he said, referring to the United States. “This was possible when we had a fraudulently elected parliament, but it isn’t possible or justified with the current freely elected one.”

Lawmakers held a rancorous session Thursday during which some criticized the security forces and suggested that the interior minister, appointed by the generals, be sacked. The session ended after parliament members opted to form a committee to probe the incident rather than take immediate action.

Days before the stadium brawl in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, Egyptians were were startled by a series of security incidents. There were armed robberies, including a bank heist in Cairo earlier this week and a robbery at a currency exchange shop in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh last week that left a French tourist dead.

“All we’re hearing now about crimes is very new,” said Ahmed Aboela, 27, a businessman in Cairo. “I am very surprised. These are not our morals.”

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