Egyptian City Erupts in Chaos After Sentences

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CAIRO -- The Egyptian government appeared to have lost control of the major city of Port Said on Saturday after a court sentenced 21 fans to death for their role in a deadly soccer riot, and their supporters attacked the prison where they were being held, as well as the police and court buildings.

By evening, fighting in the streets of Port Said had left at least 30 people dead, mostly from gunfire, and injured more than 300. Fearful residents stayed in their homes. Doctors in the city said the local hospital was overloaded with casualties and pleaded for help. Water had run out in some places. Rioters attacked the Port Said power plant, and for a time closed off the main roads to the city.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry acknowledged that its security forces were unable to control the violence and urged political leaders to try to broker a peace agreement. President Mohamed Morsi met with the National Defense Council, which includes the nation's top military leaders, and the information minister announced that the council was considering imposing a curfew and state of emergency.

By 8 p.m., a spokesman for the Egyptian military said its troops had moved in and secured vital facilities, including the prison, the Mediterranean port and the Suez Canal. But in telephone interviews, residents said the streets remained lawless. "I'm worried for my sister and mother," said Ahmed Zangir, 21. "I could run or do something, but it is not safe for them to get out."

Mr. Zangir added: "Thugs are abusing the opportunity. They are everywhere."

The violence that engulfed Port Said may be the sharpest challenge yet to Egypt's new Islamist rulers as they try to re-establish public order after the two years of turmoil that have followed the end of Hosni Mubarak's brutal autocracy.

The uprising in support of the soccer fans sentenced to death coincided with the third day of clashes between protesters and the police in Cairo and in other cities around the country, which were set off by the second anniversary of the revolt against Mr. Mubarak. Those battles were more isolated, typically confined to clashes around symbols of government power, like the Interior Ministry headquarters in Cairo or the headquarters of the provincial government in Suez.

In Suez on Friday, two police officers and seven protesters died in those clashes, state media reported.

The anniversary battles were fueled by a combination of frustration with the meager rewards of the revolution so far and hostility toward the new Islamist leaders. But the escalating chaos in Port Said arising from the soccer riot verdict posed a far greater challenge to those leaders and their promises to enforce the rule of law.

It was unclear how the fledgling government might rein in the mob without either a brutal crackdown or a capitulation to its demands. And either alternative could further inflame the streets in Cairo and around Egypt.

Illustrating the dilemma, a few hours after the defense council had raised the possibility of a curfew, Yasser Ali, a spokesman for the president, declared that there was no intention to impose one.

"The solution isn't a security solution," Gen. Osama Ismail, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in a television interview. "We urge the political and patriotic leaders and forces to intervene to calm the situation."

The case that set off the riot grew out of a deadly brawl last February between rival groups of hard-core fans of soccer teams from Cairo and Port Said at a match in Port Said, which has a population of about 600,000. The hard-core fans, called Ultras, are known for their appetite for violence against rival teams or the police. Some had smuggled knives and other weapons into the stadium, security officials said at the time.

Seventy-four people were killed and over 1,000 injured in the soccer riot. Many died after being trampled under the stampeding crowds or falling from stadium balconies, according to forensic testimony later reported in the state media.

It was the worst soccer riot in Egyptian history and among the worst in the world. Many political figures, including members of the Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, initially sought to blame a conspiracy orchestrated by Mubarak loyalists or the Interior Ministry.

Some even blamed lax oversight by the military council that ruled Egypt at the time. But prosecutors ultimately charged 21 Port Said fans with attacking their Cairo rivals, and charged nine security officers with negligence. Six of the convicted fans remain fugitives.

The verdict was awaited with acute anxiety because any outcome risked the fury of the Ultras from either Port Said or Cairo. The Cairo Ultras staged several raucous protests in recent days, temporarily shutting down subway lines and threatening the Egyptian stock exchange, foreshadowing their wrath in the event that the Port Said fans were acquitted.

Because of the fear of violence between the two groups of Ultras, the trial was held in Cairo instead of Port Said. For the same reason, the Interior Ministry declined to transfer the defendants to the Cairo courtroom to hear the verdict, leaving them in detention in their home city.

"The decision was to not pour fuel on fire," Gen. Mohsen Radi of the Interior Ministry explained in an interview published on Saturday in the state newspaper Al Ahram.

Most of those killed in Port Said on Saturday died of bullet wounds, hospital officials said. It was unclear who shot first, but witnesses said some of the civilian protesters were carrying shotguns or homemade firearms. And after two security officers were killed, the gunfire escalated sharply, witnesses and officials said, and all of the other people killed were believed to be civilians.

Rioters looted and burned a police barracks, set fire to a police station, and tried to attack others. They also attacked members of the news media, damaging television cameras that sought to film the violence and ending their broadcasts.

"There is shooting and disturbance everywhere," Omnia al-Zangeer, 23, a customs worker, said in a telephone interview from her home near the hospital. "There is so much shooting in the streets. The ambulances do not stop."

Many complained that while the soccer fans had been sentenced in a brawl that killed several dozen people, no police officer or security official had yet been held responsible for the killing of 800 civilian demonstrators during the 18 days of protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak two years ago. The only conviction of Mr. Mubarak and his interior minister was overturned this month.

"Where are the officers of the Ministry of Interior and the military council in this verdict?" Mahmoud Affifi, a spokesman for the left-leaning April 6 group, told Al Ahram. "Where are those who were responsible for running the gates? Justice won't be obtained by only punishing and prosecuting civilians."

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group allied with Mr. Morsi, blamed the news media for inciting violence against legitimately elected authorities and political opposition leaders for "silence instead of condemning these crimes and even in some cases welcoming them."

In a statement, the group said that those plotting the violence "must be condemned by all members of the society, and they must be held accountable according to the provisions of the law. It's incomprehensible to demand the rights of the martyrs by adding more martyrs and victims."

Adding to a sense of outrage, the judge hearing the case, Sobhi Abdel Megeed, had imposed a complete ban on publishing or broadcasting news during the last two months of the soccer riot trial, including details of the charges, evidence or judicial reasoning.

Saying that the nine security officers remain to be sentenced, Judge Megeed on Saturday renewed the ban, noting that the court had asked the public prosecutor "to move criminal cases against anybody who would violate the publishing ban no matter what their position is."

Most in Cairo had expected an acquittal. Speculation had centered on the wrath of the capital's Ultras if their attackers walked free. Instead, families of those killed in the soccer riot who were in the courtroom erupted in jubilation when hearing about the death penalty. Relatives held pictures of the victims in the air. Some danced and chanted. A few fainted. And the Cairo Ultras celebrated for hours outside their team's headquarters.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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