At least 19 and perhaps as many as 40 Cairo soccer fans died Sunday in clashes with national police, in just the latest unflattering incident for Egypt’s increasingly vilified security sector.
Supporters of the major Egyptian team Zamalek SC alleged that officers of the Central Security Forces barred them from entering the stadium where the team was playing. Fans began shouting at the police and tensions rose, resulting in gunfire. Government statements, however, claim that unticketed fans were trying to enter the stadium and that chaos erupted in the ensuing stampede.
Photographs and videos have emerged of attendees holding up their tickets in protest, and of officers firing directly on the crowd, though the sequence of events is still unclear.
According to eyewitness reports provided to Al-Jazeera, most of the fatalities resulted from police gunfire, while a smaller proportion died from the thousand-person crush.
Soccer fans, the most dedicated of whom are nicknamed “Ultras,” play a surprisingly large social role in Egypt, where strict controls remain on freedom of association and assembly. Zamalek is on one side of the country’s highest-profile team rivalry, called the Cairo Derby.
Violence at sporting events, while rare in Egypt, is not unheard of — at least three soccer-related “mass killings” have taken place in the country since the 2011 revolution, The Guardian reports. Police negligence and abuse are often intertwined with the resulting deaths. In February 2012, 74 fans died in a riot at a match in the city of Port Said, after which the public was prohibited from attending games until last December. Two officers were sentenced to 15-year prison terms for failing to intervene in Port Said.
Sunday’s deaths are not the only sign of increasingly forceful Egyptian police. In late January, a 31-year-old woman named Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was killed on camera by riot officers while carrying flowers to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in memory of the 2011 revolution’s anniversary. Sabbagh, a poet and secular leftist who supported president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s 2013 military ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood, has become the latest unlikely symbol of the Egyptian security state’s collateral damage against civilians.
Egypt’s police, whose relationship with the public has been complicated since president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, are not generally associated with subtlety. But in recent months, police shootings of unarmed civilians and protesters, both secular and Islamist, have continued at an unprecedentedly steady pace.
While Sunday’s match proceeded as normal despite the killings, Egypt’s cabinet ordered the country’s Premier League to suspend games until further notice. Zamalek midfielder Omar Gaber refused to play following the incident out of respect for the fans; team managers have said he will be disciplined for the gesture.
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