2 Feb 2012

Why thuggery cuts both ways in Egypt

If it wasn’t for a hard core of violent youths, many of them football fans, manning the barricades and taking on the police a year ago, would Egypt’s revolution have gone as far as it has?

There are plenty of eyewitness accounts of what happened in Port Said’s football stadium last night. Yet these accounts are so open to interpretation that finding a consistent narrative is like searching for a needle in a haystack.  At the risk of sounding cynical, welcome to Egypt, a country where conspiracy theories accompany fitful outbreaks of appalling violence.

This much is clear; 74 people were killed and hundreds were injured. Many fans died in stampedes to escape football thugs armed  with knives, sticks, stones and fireworks; thugs who were clearly spoiling for a fight.

The army and the police were at the ground, but clearly not doing their job properly. Some say this was deliberate, with violence serving the useful purpose of reminding Egyptians that they cannot be trusted to mind their own affairs without Egypt’s military rulers in charge.

Egypt’s largest political grouping, the Muslim Brotherhood, has blamed “foreign fingers” for stirring up trouble. Plus ca change. It was the same argument President Hosni Mubarak used before he was toppled almost a year ago, and it points to a decades-old inability of many in Egypt to take responsibility for the parlous state of their country.

Common sense will tell you the police were probably overwhelmed and at the very least scandalously incompetent last night. Police morale has not recovered from last year’s revolution, officers often don’t turn up for work, and there may have been a reluctance to intervene at risk of making a bad situation even worse.

Last night’s events also point to a shocking degree of thuggery within Egyptian football which has little to do with politics. One fan tweeted that it is quite common for travelling football fans to be pelted with stones by die-hard rival supporters, as they were yesterday.

Yet in a way, the truth no longer matters. It is how Egyptian politicians, protesters and supporters now manipulate that truth which creates its own reality. And today’s reality is that thousands are demonstrating, accusing the military and police of causing chaos, with MPs in the new parliament calling for the military junta to give up power.

These are jittery times in Egypt. The revolution isn’t finished yet. Many fear it never will be, that the army has no intention of relinquishing the reins, though it has said it will do so this summer. And fear of state-sponsored thuggery has honest enough origins; a year ago, thugs appeared around Tahrir Square after other forms of crowd control – tear gas, water cannon and bullets – had failed to restore order. One bunch of these thugs threatened my team and prevented us from leaving our hotel to report.

But thuggery cuts both ways. If it wasn’t for a hard core of violent youths, many of them football fans, manning the barricades and taking on the police a year ago, would Egypt’s revolution have gone as far as it has?

Today happens to be the anniversary of the infamous “camel charge”, when Egyptian camel owners from the pyramids cantered through Tahrir Square. Defending the square were fans of Cairo’s Al-Ahly team, many of whom were killed or injured yesterday, which of course leads many to believe last night’s violence was some form of official revenge for the fans’ role in the revolution.

While the conspiracy theories swirl, consider this; decades of dictatorship and now military rule have fostered a political class understandably incapable of taking responsibility for Egypt’s massive social and economic problems. Only when the military step down, can these problems really be addressed.

Follow Jonathan Rugman on Twitter: @jrug