CAIRO — At least 73 people were killed in a brawl between rival groups of soccer fans after a match in the city of Port Said on Wednesday, the bloodiest outbreak of lawlessness since the ouster of
President Hosni Mubarak one year ago.
The riot refocused attention on the failure of the transitional government to re-establish a sense of order and stability in the streets and threatened to provoke a new crisis for Egypt’s halting political transition. The deadliest soccer riot anywhere in more than 15 years, it also illuminated the potential for savagery among the organized groups of die-hard fans known here as ultras who have added a volatile element to the street protests since Mr. Mubarak’s exit.
Leading members of the newly elected Parliament accused the military-led government of deliberately allowing the violence to escalate to justify its expansive police powers and undermine the revolution. Lawmakers demanded high-level resignations and threatened a vote of no confidence in the military-appointed cabinet, and Parliament scheduled an emergency session on Thursday to discuss the episode.
“The reason for this tragedy is the deliberate neglect and absence of the military and the police,” said Essam el Erian, a senior lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, which leads the chamber.
He accused security forces of “a plot against democratic transition” and of “a revenge against us” for seeking to end the so-called emergency law allowing extralegal detention.
“This will not pass without punishment, a thousand punishments,” he warned.
Politicians, fans and Egyptian soccer officials all faulted the police for failing to conduct the standard gate searches to prevent fans from bringing knives, clubs or other weapons into the match.
The first flurries of violence, by all accounts, occurred about midway through the match between the historical rivals El Masry of Port Said and Al Ahly of Cairo. The visiting Ahly fans displayed a sign questioning the virility of Port Said fans, and the game was halted temporarily because of scuffles in the stands.
After El Masry came from behind to win in a 3-1 upset, its fans stormed the field, chasing Al Ahly’s players back to their locker room and attacking its fans with knives, clubs and stones. The police around the stadium appeared unable or unwilling to control the violence, and video footage showed officers standing idle as the melee exploded.
Mohammed Abu Trika, a star player with Al Ahly, said that the police had done nothing. “People here are dying, and no one is doing a thing. It’s like a war,” he said in an interview on Al Ahly’s satellite channel. “Is life this cheap?”
Soon locker rooms had transformed into makeshift field hospitals. Bloody bodies littered the field. Health Ministry officials said that some people had died of knife wounds and some from blows to the head. Some were thrown down from high in the stands. Others were trampled by stampeding fans rushing to escape.
An official of the Port Said morgue said at least a few of those killed were members of the security forces, The Associated Press reported.
Egypt’s military rulers sent helicopters and military vehicles to Port Said to carry the Ahly players and fans, the injured and the dead back to Cairo. Other soldiers and tanks were deployed around the city to help keep the peace.
In a rare impromptu statement, Egypt’s top military officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, vowed in a phone call to Al Ahly’s satellite channel that the military would apprehend those responsible and that the victims would be compensated.
“We will get through this stage. Egypt will be stable,” he said. “We have a road map to transfer power to elected civilians. If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt, they will not succeed. Everyone will get what they deserve.”
Others sought to associate the rioting fans with political protests in the streets. “This is a plot to topple the state,” said Kamel Abu Ali, president of the Masry club, who resigned over the deaths. “The police have to come back strongly, and we must let them do their job,” he continued, in a television interview. “When a thug is being punished, we shouldn’t defend him.”
The bloodshed was believed to be the deadliest soccer match since 1996, when 78 people died in a stampede after a match in Guatemala City.
In Cairo, the die-hard fans of the capital’s Zamalek club, usually archrivals of Al Ahly, abandoned a match in midgame in solidarity with the team, burning their signs as they usually do at the end. The match was called off, and by the end of the night, the league had suspended its schedule.
Apolitical before last year’s uprising, the fans, or ultras, were known for their rowdy behavior, obscene chants and apparently endless enthusiasm for clashes with the often-brutal Egyptian police.
The ultras joined the revolt against Mr. Mubarak on the first day of protests, taunting and harassing the police as they tried to crack down on thousands of other marchers heading for Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Protest organizers said that they had played a more central role in the “battle of the camels,” helping to beat back mobs of Mubarak supporters in a daylong battle of rocks and gasoline bombs. Thursday is the anniversary of that event, a turning point in the Egyptian revolt.
By 2 a.m. Thursday, a new wave of protests had begun, blaming the military-led government for allowing the deaths of the fans. There were reports of marchers’ making their way through Port Said and chanting for the fall of the military council and clashes with police officers firing tear gas in the city of Suez.
In Cairo, demonstrators against military rule who had been camped out by the state television building moved their vigil to the Ahly headquarters. Then they marched to the train station, where hundreds were gathering to receive returning survivors.