Soccer fans flee from a fire at Port Said Stadium February 1, 2012.
Once again, Egypt has once been roiled by violence. This time, the violence occurred in the aftermath of a soccer match between two Egyptian clubs, al-Masry and Al-Ahli. Apparently, last Wednesday, hundreds of al-Masry supporters stormed the pitch, menaced the Al-Ahli players, and went on the rampage against Al-Ahli fans. These fans, in response, headed for the exit, which was locked. As more and more fans piled into the exit area, many became trampled and then suffocated. In all, 74 people died and over 1000 were injured.
Since then, angry Egyptians have protested in several cities, including at the interior ministry in Cairo and police stations in Suez. They have called for the military government, or SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), to step down, turn over power to a transitional government, and speed up plans to hold presidential elections. (On the last point, it looks like the protesters have gained a minor victory, though the military still won't cede power until June.) The protests have turned ugly, indeed only fueling further violence, as the police and protesters have fought street battles, which has led to more deaths and injuries.
Soccer-related violence is by no means uncommon, especially in Europe. Soccer fanatics, or really thugs and hooligans, have caused soccer matches to be canceled and later played in front of empty stadiums. Soccer fanatics have rioted, fought against police and other fans, and caused death and destruction. Research has shown that soccer fanatics have even played a role in large-scale ethnic cleansing. And this is only a brief list of their nefarious acts. Along these lines, Egypt is no different. The country has its soccer hooligans, or Ultras, who have their own a history of violence and criminality.
But the recent violence in Egypt is a bit different than the usual story of soccer fan hooliganism. Oh sure, I don't doubt that the perpetrators are thugs and criminals. More specifically, this group of thugs is likely a mixture of counter-revolutionaries, mercenaries recruited to cause unrest, and miscreants looking for and causing trouble. Regardless, this isn't the whole story. Remember, Egypt nowadays is in the midst of a political revolution. This was the setting in which the violence unfolded, and this fact matters in a number of ways.
First, consider this very interesting point made by Juan Cole: "Ahli soccer rowdies had played a leading role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and I saw them lining up around Tahrir Square last summer to provide security to a second round of protests. Ultras had often fought police after games, and used that experience during the revolution. Those in Egypt’s dissident movement already predisposed to see the military and police as holdovers of the Mubarak regime darkly suspected that police in Port Said had their own thugs target Ahli ultras in an act of revenge."
Second, present-day Egypt is also deeply divided, another part of revolutionary conditions. On the one hand, it is clear that some police/security forces are actively seeking to stop the revolution, while others are looking for retribution. Perhaps they saw the soccer match as an opportunity to satisfy these goals. Indeed, it shouldn't be a surprise that eyewitness accounts say that policing in the stadium was very light and that thugs were deliberately let into the stadium by the few police who were stationed there.
On the other hand, the revolutionaries and reform-minded sympathizers, among others, seek to protect and advance the gains they have achieved over the last year. They are anti-establishment, anti-police/security, and against anything else they see as impediments to democratic change. It also doesn't help that the revolutionaries view the police/security forces and the military government as leftovers of the repressive Mubarak era. Emboldened by their successes, as well as very angry at and motivated by the soccer violence, they have confronted the police/security forces, protesting at various spots in Egypt, which has only escalated tensions and hostilities.
The revolution matters in another way: it brought to power the military government. There are suspicions that the generals intentionally were slow to deal with the crisis, for various reasons. Perhaps as a form of revenge, to inflict some pain on the Ultras who supported the revolution. Perhaps to provide a bloody reminder that the military is still needed for security and stability in Egypt. And of course, there is the widespread belief that the military is just not on board with all of the democratic changes that the reformers yearn for.
This then begs the following questions: What does the military want? What are its preferences and interests? Consider the following assessment from Omar Ashour:
Ideally, [the military] would like to combine the Algerian army’s current power and the Turkish army’s legitimacy. This implies a parliament with limited powers, a weak presidency subordinate to the army, and constitutional prerogatives that legitimate the army’s intervention in politics.
The minimum that they insist on is reflected in statements by Generals al-Mulla, Mamdouh Shahim, Ismail Etman, and others. That would mean a veto in high politics, independence for the army’s budget and vast economic empire, legal immunity from prosecution on charges stemming from corruption or repression, and constitutional prerogatives to guarantee these arrangements.
If this is what the military wants, and keep in mind Ashor's account seems reasonable, then it has undoubtedly set itself up for a battle with a host of Egyptian political factions. After all, as Shadi Hamid points out, "All major political forces agree that the military must go back to the barracks and cease interfering in day-to-day politics. There are differences on specifics—such as parliamentary oversight over the military budget and immunity provisions for senior officers—but, notwithstanding its ability to outmaneuver its opponents, the military’s influence in politics will be significantly curtailed."
We should also consider that the people now running the show are military guys, not seasoned politicians. For years, yes, they have played a behind the scenes role in Egyptian politics, largely to protect and enlarge their base of interests. But they have no experience, and maybe even no interest, in day-to-day governing. In this sense, it's expected that SCAF would exhibit a great deal of incompetence and ineptness, such as failing to reform the police ranks. SCAF has been learning on the job. And it is doing so at an incredibly tricky, complicated time.
So what does all of this mean? It is all a part of the laborious process of democratization. It takes time and it's not easy. These are banalities, to be sure, but they are also the truth. There has been and will continue to be fits and spurts, ups and downs. And at times, regrettably, we will also see extreme polarization, conflict, and violence. This is all part of throwing out the old guard, newcomers jockeying for power and influence, and the old regime and their cronies attempting to disrupt the new political landscape. As long as Egyptian society continues to cohere, despite all of the potential pitfalls, the country should remain on track to succeed eventually.
Overall, I remain optimistic because of the continued display of people power. It's what I have previously called Egypt's "revolutionary spirit." It is alive and still going strong. The revolutionaries are still able to mobilize support, get people into the streets, and articulate their demands and grievances. This is a very good sign. And it has helped to force the SCAF into a number of concessions over the past year. But should this revolutionary spirit begin to wane, we could see Egypt could plunge back into prolonged retrogressive and dysfunctional politics. Simply put, without an activated and organized pro-reform crowd, there won't be a significant counterweight to the military and extremist individuals and groups.