Cairo: Egyptians were stunned upon hearing the famed Al Ahli footballer Mohammad Abu Treika appealing on the club’s television Wednesday night.
“This is not football. It is like a street war. Help us.” His plea was made as thousands of fans invaded a football pitch in the coastal city of Port Said following a game in the local league competition between Al Ahli, Egypt’s top team, and their hosts Al Masry.
Ensuing violence left at least 74 people dead and more than 150 injured, according to Ministry of Health figures.
The cause of the violence was not immediately clear, as the game ended 3-1 in favour of the hosts.
Weak reaction from police
Footage broadcast on Egyptian television showed Al Masry fans attacking the players of the rival team and their supporters amid weak reaction from the police.
The tragedy, the worst in Egypt’s soccer history, prompted the Egyptian Football Association to suspend the Premiere League competition.
The country’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussain Tantawi, ordered military aircraft transport Al Ahli and their fans from Port Said to their hometown, Cairo. He also ordered three days of national mourning.
The governor of Port Said and the town’s security chief were sacked from their posts for allegedly failing to provide enough security for the match, according to unconfirmed media reports.
Often marred by rioting
Previous fixtures between Al Ahli and Al Masri were often marred by rioting. Soccer is No.1 sport in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country.
“What happened in Port Said is part of systematic chaos,” Essam Sharaf, Egypt’s former prime minister, wrote on his Facebook Page.
Sharaf was forced under pressure to resign last November after more than 40 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces in Tahrir Square in central Cairo.
Egypt has been gripped by turmoil since a popular revolt that unseated long-standing president Hosni Mubarak last February.
Ayman Nour, a leading opposition figure, ruled out the possibility that Wednesday night violence was spontaneous. “It is a premeditated massacre reminiscent of the Camel Battle,” he said, referring to a deadly attack unleashed by Mubarak’s supporters on protesters camping in Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011.
Nour demanded that Interior Minister Mohammad Ebrahim, who was given the post in early December, to be sacked.
A series of bank robberies were carried out in several areas across Egypt in the past few days, reinforcing doubts that security wil be re-established any time soon.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most influential group, blamed Mubarak’s loyalists for the deadly rioting. “The Port Said incidents were planned in advance and came as a message from remnants of the former regime,” said Essam Al Erian, a lawmaker, and a senior official in the group. Banned and oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood holds nearly half of new parliament.
“It would be self-deception to think that what took place in Port Said was mere soccer violence,” said Fares Mokhtar, a government employee in Cairo. “This disaster was aimed to plunge Egypt into instability and block any plan to end the military rule.”
Tensions have grown in Egypt in recent months over the military rulers’ handling of a transitional period amid demands for them to cede power to a civilian administration.