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Soccer Riots Threatening to Engulf Egypt

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One soccer match, two Egyptian cities, and court ruling are what encapsulate the furor that has accumulated in Egypt over the last few months, and is now threatening that nation’s stability.

It would appear that this trial – and not the one of Hosni Mubarak - has become the fuse that was lit a year ago, and has now reached the powder keg.

The question remains: Will that keg explode, or will Egyptian security forces manage to contain the eruption that could send the nation into an uncontrollable tailspin?

The riots were peaking as the Cairo judge read out his ruling - which included death sentences for 21 men, jail sentences for 28, and acquittals for 24.

In Port Said, from where most of the convicted men hail, the violent riots raging since January reached their most intense levels, with reports of protesters taking over the road leading to the port, and the reliving of city police of its responsibility to maintain law and order by the military.

In Cairo, hundreds of people massed near the headquarters of the interior ministry and the courthouse, two buildings that have become targets of popular rage and as such are under military protection.

The affair began with a soccer match that took place between two Egyptian teams, Port Said’s Al-Masry and Cairo's Al-Ahly, in early February of 2012. Fighting broke out between fans of the two soccer clubs at the end of the match; people were trampled, heads were split, and guns blazed indiscriminately. At the end of the day, 73 people had been killed.

The victims’ families, and the fans of both clubs, waited for the court's ruling on the incident for the past year; a period that was marked by political upheaval so intense it threatened to tear Egypt apart. The difficulties in drafting a constitution, the hasty plebiscite conducted to approve it, Mohammed Morsi’s executive decisions to grant himself dictator-like powers, and the tense relations between the government and the army all took place against the backdrop of the looming financial crisis. These events have been fanning the flames of frustration, with combustion only a catalyst away.

Will the “Port Said massacre” trial, as it was dubbed by the Egyptian media, be that catalyst? The answer hinges on the nature of the violence that will ensue, the number of casualties it will claim, the police’s ability to quell the riots, and the military’s willingness to act against civilians.

In Port Said, the court ruling (which is a continuation of the January ruling in which 21 offenders were sentenced to death) was labelled a “political ruling” whose agenda is to satisfy the Al-Ahly fans, who are considered supporters of the regime.

But there is no rejoicing in Cairo, either. Fans of Al-Masry are angry over the light prison sentences handed down to the police commanders, and the 28 acquittals. Hours after the decision was announced - via a televised message in a courtroom empty of audience - civilians in Cairo continued to amass around the interior ministry headquarters, demanding that the interior minister step down. Some of those protesters made their way to Tahrir Square.

For now, the opposition leaders have not taken advantage of the gatherings and riots to increase their political capital and take a run at Morsi’s government. The opposition forces, which found an unlikely ally in the courts - who have been serving their interests – refrained from joining the protests, as this could be seen as a delegitimizing move that would put the alliance at risk. If the situation deteriorates, however, the court ruling and the soccer match could turn into political ammunition of an especially potent variety, as next month’s election draws near.

Al-Ahly club supporters run away from smoke and flames rising from the police officers' club in Cairo on March 9, 2013, after several buildings in the complex were set on fire. Credit: AFP

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