A protester opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shouts slogans and holds empty bullet casings protesters say were found in the same area as last week’s protest, in Port Said February 1, 2013. Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Port Said, Egypt—Port Said has become a city of numbers, its narrative punctuated by a grim arithmetic: twenty-one sentenced to death in a trial for seventy-two killed in a soccer riot, thirty-two killed after the verdict was announced. Seven killed in a funeral march the next day. Four more shot dead the night after that.
In a struggle to make sense of the toll, residents resort to macabre calculations. “Maybe when the number of dead reaches seventy-two, like in the stadium last year, the shooting will stop in Port Said,” says Adel Shehata.
Shehata’s 21-year-old son, Mohammed—known to friends and family as ‘Hommos’—is one of twenty-one men, all of them local soccer fans, who were sentenced to death by a judge in a Cairo court on January 26 on charges relating to the deaths of seventy-two people in Port Said’s soccer stadium last year. Fans of Port Said’s Masry club stormed the field after a match on February 1, 2012, and attacked the vastly outnumbered visiting supporters of Cairo’s Ahly club. The majority of those killed were crushed to death in a stampede. As the massacre unfolded, security forces and riot police looked on and did nothing to intervene.
Lying on the Mediterranean at the mouth of the Suez Canal, Port Said is a duty-free port and tourist resort of 600,000 known for its exceptional nineteenth-century Italian and Greek architecture, its fishing industry and its proud legacy as a center point of resistance during the tripartite war launched against Egypt by Britain, France and Israel after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal in the 1950s. Yet residents say they have been relegated to a pariah city, alienated and persecuted for the past year over the soccer violence.
Charges were brought against seventy-three people, including Masry fans, senior police officers and club officials. Shehata says he was at the match with Hommos and that after the final whistle they immediately left together and went home. A week later, police came to their house in the middle of night and arrested Hommos. He has been behind bars for the past year and now faces execution by the state.
“My son is innocent. My most pessimistic assessment was that he would get a one-year sentence and be let go with time already served,” Shehata says. “When I heard the verdict it was like I was struck in the head. I lost complete awareness of my surroundings.”
In the year leading up to the trial, hardcore Ahly fans—known as Ultras—have been calling for retribution and justice for those killed in Port Said, staging multiple protests and acts of civil disobedience. The verdict was widely viewed as a political ruling to placate the Ahly Ultras and pointed to the broadlyheld view of a judiciary trying cases based on political considerations rather than the rule of law. The same judiciary has not imprisoned a single police officer since the beginning of the revolution for the killing of hundreds of protesters.
Friends and family members who had gathered outside the prison in Port Said to hear the verdict erupted in grief and anger at the news of the twenty-one death sentences. Some approached the prison and reportedly tried to storm it. A staggering thirty-two people were killed, most of them shot by police, and hundreds more wounded.