Discuss as:

After soccer melee, Egypt learns tough lesson: sharing blame

Police react as chaos erupts at a soccer stadium in Port Said, Egypt on Wednesday.

News Analysis

CAIRO – Tragedy. Conspiracy. Massacre.

However you decide to describe Wednesday's deadly melee at an Egyptian soccer game that left 74 dead, one thing is for certain. It is being described as a blemish on Egypt and Egyptians.

In merely a few hours, more Egyptians were killed than in any single day in Egypt's nascent revolution.

The incident cuts across much deeper issues in a country where soccer and politics intersect at all levels of society and social classes. Wednesday's violence highlights shortcomings in the country's sporting culture, free-speech psychology and politics. It exposes mistrust that defines the transforming relationship between the state's security and its citizens: failing to define each other’s responsibility to the other. And it sheds light on the country's past, while offering a glimpse into its democratic future, where officials are held to account and the public also must hold itself responsible for violating its own set of values and morals.

Those responsible for the violence at Wednesday’s game were Egyptians. Period.

Now, they could have been instigated, motivated and, even more sinisterly, hired to carry out these attacks on each other.  But in the end, they were all fellow countrymen representing broader groups of society, whether they be pro-revolutionary, pro-military, remnants of the old regime or simply thugs. Today the country had to face up to that fact.

At least 74 people were killed and hundreds more injured when rival soccer fans in Egypt rioted after a match. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Cairo.

Culture of insults
I have been attending soccer games in Egypt since I was a little boy. I and the millions of other Egyptians who attend these games are always somewhat entertained by the verbal abuse leveled at officials, opposing teams' fans and their players. From derogatory chants to straight-up provocative curses, nothing is off limits at these games.

And although I did not attend the game between Al Ahly and Al Masry on Wednesday, the run-up to the game and the chants heard during the game itself reflect a culture in which insults, taunting and provocation are not the exception, but the norm.

Such a culture demeans the very sport. And in a country where tensions are already high, the notion that fans can demean each other along political lines reflects the growing fragmentation in Egypt's post-revolutionary transition. It was reported that Ahly fans repeatedly taunted the home crowds, unfurling insulting posters and accusing them of not supporting the populist revolution that "liberated the country.”

Your soccer team is political statement
At the forefront of sports and politics are the die-hard fans of prominent clubs like Al Ahly and Al Zamalek, known in Egypt as the Ultras. The very name Ultra is meant to connote the most extreme level of loyalty by the fans.

Egypt's sporting clubs reflect complex layers of the country's past and current power structure. Al Ahly was founded by staunchly anti-British republicans. Al Zamalek drew its support from the country's colonial British administrators and their monarchist allies. Even Egypt's security apparatuses field top-flight teams from the army, police, military industry and border guards.

Str / AP

Egyptians sit on a sidewalk in front of the Al-Ahly sporting club in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday. A network of soccer fans known as Ultras vowed vengeance, accusing the police of intentionally letting rivals attack them because they have been at the forefront of protests over the past year, first against former leader Hosni Mubarak and now the military.

Who you support makes a difference in Egypt. Why you support them matters even more. When teams reflect such historical and cultural differences, it’s not surprising to find tension and violence at sporting events. At a time when sport could be a healing and unifying factor in the country, it has emerged as divisive theater.

In recent weeks, the Ultras of both Al Ahly and Al Zamalek have made reconciliatory efforts to each other. But it’s a small drop in the bucket following years of deep animosity. It was up to the moral conscience of the storming fans to realize that they were committing murder.

In the absence of security or riot police and in the presence of instigators or saboteurs, where was the moral conscience of Egyptians at the stadium to realize that storming the field in celebration is one thing, committing murder with weapons is another? Have Egyptians become that immune to violence to no longer draw the line of distinction? Are they so easily manipulated to carry out such attacks by larger societal powers?

Ultras Ahly carry even more political baggage, because they were at the forefront of 18-day street protests against the Mubarak regime and the military council that inherited power after the revolution. The Ultras Ahly have drawn on their past years of battle-hardened stadium experience with riot police in their ongoing confrontations with the military and the security forces. That has drawn them admiration and support from pro-revolutionary movements in the country for sustaining pressure on the military rulers despite "revolution fatigue" in some corridors of the country. It has also drawn anger from parts of the country that see sustained street protests as undermining the country's stability, democratic transition and economic recovery.

Police complicit or just ill-prepared?
But unlike in previous soccer-related violence, Wednesday's incident had a suspiciously high death toll. Despite the presence of security and riot police in visibly large numbers, the rampaging crowds were pretty much unhindered as they stormed the field. This has led many to question whether a sinister plot could have been tacitly in place to allow for such violence.

Many speculate the military council and its backers gain by exploiting such acts of “chaos.” Others simply say that this is an example of the incompetence of poorly trained security forces that are incapable of dealing with large crowds without brute force.

Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images

An Egyptian man cries as he joins others in prayer outside Al-Ahly club in Cairo on Thursday.

I wonder what the public reaction would have been if police had used overwhelming force to subdue the on charging crowds and prevent the fan-on-fan violence. There surely would have been public outcry against the security forces for suppressing rowdy crowds.

It’s a lose-lose situation for the security forces. Act and suppress the crowds, and the police will be condemned for cracking down on what would surely have been described as a "post-victory celebration.” Stand by and do nothing and they are accused of complicity in the killing of fans. Therein lays the dilemma that Egypt's security apparatus faces: a crisis of confidence and credibility. But above all just poor technical capabilities in crowd control.

Even when the state is expected to uphold its responsibilities and preserve law and order it is handicapped by the lack of trust the general public has in those forces. Perhaps the police were ordered to avoid direct confrontation to precisely avoid the risk of injuring disorderly fan. Is there a solution where by the police are allowed to use force to subdue disorderly conduct that is disruptive to the public good. When and who gets to make the distinction between civil disobedience and free-speech protests where police are expected to keep a distance; and disorderly conduct where police must preserve law and order?

New political theater
Enter Egypt's new parliament. This trying experience has been baptism by fire for the new parliamentarians who spent the better part of Thursday debating what they as a body can and should do. As the only democratically elected state institution in the country, it has been among the most responsive so far.

Members of parliament took to the airwaves on Wednesday evening condemning those responsible, while vowing to hold them responsible. On Thursday the entire body took up the matter. They summoned the prime minister and five other ministers to an emergency session to discuss the matter. Feeling the heat, the prime minister walked into the People's Assembly by saying the governor of Port Said had resigned and top security officials were suspended

Parliamentarians did not hold back their criticism of the government's handling of the situation – they put the blame squarely on the military, its prime minister and the security forces for failing to preserve the public order. The proceedings happened live on television as millions of Egyptians and Arabs across the world watched hours of uninterrupted debate.

In the end, it was decided that the minister of interior will be investigated for his handling of the situation, many called for his sacking.

Nasser Nasser / AP

Egyptian protesters fly their national flag and the flag of the Al-Ahly sporting club while they rally in solidarity and support for the club and chanting anti-ruling military council slogans on their way to Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt on Thursday.

It was an example of a budding democratic body attempting to hold officials accountable. In the long run, it may prove to be fruitless, and the parliament may lose the zeal it demonstrated Thursday, but it does for now meet the immediate expectations of many citizens. How far the parliament can push its accountability will be tested in the coming days and weeks.

But the violence in Wednesday's tragedy also teaches one more important lesson, as one Egyptian Ahly fan told me, "We as a country must learn to share the blame for what we do, not just simply get used to assigning blame.”

Ayman Mohyeldin is an NBC News Correspondent currently based in Cairo, Egypt. He was born in Cairo and lived there until age 5. He spent a lot of timing visiting family there as a young adult and has been working on and off in Egypt since 2005 for CNN, Al Jazeera and now NBC News. He has attended both club and national soccer team games since he was a child.