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.
The following morning, a massive funeral march for the victims came under fire from tear gas and live ammunition from police on rooftops. Overcome with tear gas, mourners were forced to drop the coffins they carried on their shoulders, spilling the bodies onto the street. At least seven more people were killed.
Armed residents attacked the police station. Its white façade was pockmarked with bullet holes. A charred and smashed police truck remained parked outside. The street was littered with broken glass and burned tires. The police stayed inside and off the streets. Port Said was in rebellion.
“Resistance in Port Said is natural given the city’s history,” says Badr El-Farghali, a 65-year-old former MP with the Tagammu party. “We are the guardians of the Suez Canal for the Egyptian people. Right now we are resisting a backwards and oppressive force.”
The mounting death toll in the coastal city came amidst widespread protests and clashes with security forces in cities across the country that marked the second anniversary of the revolution and spoke to a broader sense of alienation, injustice and a near-complete erosion of state legitimacy across Egypt.
During the violence, President Mohammed Morsi took to the airwaves to deliver a nationallytelevised speech. Instead of condemning the excessive use of force by security forces, the president saluted the police and army for “their efforts to protect the country.”
In an angry, finger-wagging address, Morsi declared a thirty-day state of emergency in the three Suez Canal provinces: Port Said, Suez and Ismailia and said a curfew was in place from 9 pm to 6 am. He added, “I instructed interior ministry officials to strictly deal with whoever threatens the people, public and private institutions. Everybody should be aware that Egypt’s institutions are capable of defending the country against any threats.”
Morsi’s move engendered only more resistance. Port Saidis gathered in their thousands at 9pm to defy the curfew. While the protests in Cairo were largely dominated by young men and activists, the curfew marches in Port Said were diverse, comprising men and women of all ages and social classes leading vigorous chants of “Whoa, it’s 9 o’clock” and “The curfew is ruined you sons of bitches” to openly mock the president. They also called for nominal independence for Port Said, a manifestation of the deep sense of betrayal by the central government in Cairo.
“There is no curfew,” Shehata says. “The curfew should be on the police, not on Port Said.”
The day after Morsi’s speech at least four more people were killed in the area around the El-Arab police station. One of them was 23-year-old Osama Sherbini, who was shot through the cheek and neck and died where he fell.
“I accuse the president for the death of Osama,” says his uncle, Mossab Sherbini. “In his speech, he was provocative and ordered the police to use more violence.” He says he wanted to get an autopsy but was pressured by several hospital officials to bury his nephew quickly. He waited fifteen hours for a doctor before giving up. “We wanted to lay him to rest,” Mossab says. “They killed him and all his dreams. Why?”
The violence in Port Said has subsided, yet the protests have not. State institutions, most notably the police and security forces, are untouched by reform and have become increasingly isolated from citizens on the street. Port Said, along with much of Egypt, is rejecting the authority of the state.
“No one will stop these youth,” says Mossab. “They open their breasts to the bullets. Morsi is finished, it’s just a matter of time.”