Was football riot orchestrated to inflame Egypt?

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Former regime accused of collusion in stadium catastrophe, reports Alastair Beach in Cairo

Cairo

The president of the Egyptian Football Association and his entire board of directors resigned yesterday, having already been fired by the Prime Minister after last week's riot at a game between Port Said and Cairo left more than 70 people dead.

Samir Zaher, the EFA president, was also said to have been banned from leaving the country pending an investigation into the Egypt's worst incident of football violence.

Scores of fans of the visiting Cairo club Al Ahly were crushed to death as they tried to escape from marauding thugs who poured on to pitch after the home team Al Masry's unexpected 3-1 victory. Others were stabbed to death, according to health officials. Still more were clubbed senseless.

The catastrophe sparked rioting across Egypt that has claimed another 11 lives and has the potential to wreck the country's fragile transition to civilian rule.

Despite the resignations, the cause of the disaster remains a mystery. Egypt's Interior Minister has blamed chanting fans for triggering the violence saying the attacks began after a prolonged volley of insults between the two groups of supporters. But MPs, activist groups and thousands of protesters point to a darker explanation.

Al-Ahly fans arriving at Port Said's stadium last Wednesday night, were surprised at the lack of security. According to fans who spoke to the Independent on Sunday, none of the supporters was searched for weapons when entering the ground – an almost unprecedented security lapse for a top football match in Egypt. "Everybody is usually searched before going into a game," said one. "Especially if you are from Cairo."

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading Cairo-based NGO, confirmed the low-level security. Researchers trying to establish what happened that night, were told that there was an extremely thin police presence in the stadium despite outbreaks of street violence before the same fixture last year.

When violence erupted after the final whistle, television images showed lines of riot police standing watching as the pitch was invaded.

Port Said fans were seen pouring through steel gates that are usually kept locked, but which mysteriously appear to have been opened during the match.

It has also been noted that the governor of Port Said and his chief of police, who would have been expected to attend such a high-profile clash, were not present.

This feeds into a narrative being spun by some people in Egypt that those killed were not victims of happenstance. They were, it is argued, pawns in an elaborately plot to foment exactly the kind of unrest which is now spreading across the country.

One Al-Masry supporter, Ahmad Osama, 23, said that many of those allowed into the game were not the usual fans. "The people who did this were not Port Said supporters," he said.

Mohamed Ehad, of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, agreed. "There were a lot of strange people at the game," he said. "Some were armed, some had knives. Some entered the match at half-time, which is not usually allowed in Egypt."

Al-Ahly fans said their attackers had not seemed like normal football supporters. "Some of them looked like thugs," said one, who asked not to be named.

"They were carrying weird weapons like knives and swords."

Doctors said that many of those killed died in a stampede, crushed as thousands of fans tried to escape through a single corridor, the door to which had been padlocked during the game. Others suffered knife wounds. "When I went to the morgue in Cairo, I saw at least 25 bodies which had been stabbed," said one fan, who had joined families looking for missing loved ones.

Human rights groups and politicians say all this indicates collusion, with loyalists of the former president Hosni Mubarak employing thugs to wreak havoc on Cairo fans, many of whom have led protests against the ruling Military Council.

They point to the widely-acknowledged nexus between the ruling establishment and networks of criminals who for years were recruited to do the regime's dirty work.

Bassem Samir, executive director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, said that prior to the 2010 parliamentary elections, his organisation found evidence of links between Port Said police chiefs and the criminal underworld. Gangs of "baltageya", the regime-sponsored thugs deployed to intimidate protesters, were given a share of Port Said's duty-free business in exchange for their services.

Mr Samir believes a similar arrangement could be behind the football violence. "One way or another, it was planned." he said.

Evidence directly implicating Mubarak-era figures emerged over the weekend. Reports in the Egyptian media claimed that two men with close ties to Gamal Mubarak, the former president's son, who at one time was expected to succeed him, had been identified as being linked to the killings.

The reports said that a man apprehended by Port Said locals after the violence claimed he had been hired by Gamal Omar, a billionaire businessman, and Al-Husseini Mahmoud Abu Amar, a former member of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

The claims, repeated on the Muslim Brotherhood's website, have not been verified, and Mr Omar issued a statement on his Facebook page denying any involvement. Yet with violence continuing to grip the country, it seems many activists are convinced that Egypt's establishment still has questions to answer.

Genuine fans certainly believe that. On Friday night, I spoke to one Cairo supporter, his head bandaged, as he left a funeral for one of the 74 fans who died. "I remember reading a statement on the opposition website before we arrived from Cairo," said the man, who asked not to be named. "It said, 'if you are heading to Port Said, just say goodbye to your mothers'."

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