One warm night in September, I sat in an outdoor café in Cairo’s Shubra neighborhood with a young member of the Ultras Ahlawy, an organization of hard-core fans of the Cairo soccer team Al Ahly. Mahmoud, a pseudonym, was a diminutive twenty-one-year-old with bulging biceps, a red athletic shirt, and gelled hair swept up in a James Dean pompadour. He pulled out a laptop computer and showed me a grainy video taken on February 1, 2012, documenting a tragedy that continues to trouble Egypt.
That night, at Port Said’s soccer stadium, some 125 miles from Cairo, a mob of fans surged across the field following the victory of the home team, Al Masry, over Al Ahly. Then they attacked the Cairo team’s supporters. Hundreds of Al Ahly fans, including many members of the Ultras, were thrown from the stadium’s top tiers, stabbed, asphyxiated, or crushed in tunnels as they tried to escape. Seventy-nine people died, all of them teenagers and young men. Mahmoud had narrowly missed getting on the train to Port Said that morning. He told me that “more than a dozen” of his friends had been killed.
It seemed at first like a spontaneous riot, but many suspected something more sinister. During the Egyptian revolution, Cairo’s Ultras Ahlawy had earned a reputation in the battle for Tahrir Square as indefatigable street fighters who had confronted the police, and often beaten them back, with stones and Molotov cocktails. Following the killings in Port Said, many Egyptians accused the police of complicity—allowing armed thugs to enter the stadium, then standing by as they attacked Al Ahly fans. Mahmoud had no doubt that the accusation was true. “The police wanted to get revenge on us, because we had been in the front lines of the revolution,” he told me.
The Port Said incident and its emotionally charged aftermath serve as a reminder of how politicized nearly every aspect of Egyptian life—even soccer—has become since the events of 2011. The killings are also presenting President Mohamed Morsi with one of his thorniest challenges as he struggles to restore stability after eighteen months of turbulence. After the deaths, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which was then ruling Egypt, moved swiftly to deal with nationwide expressions of grief and anger. The head of security in Port Said was removed from his post. Eighty-three people were arrested, and all are still in prison pending their long-delayed trial. The regime proclaimed that the seventy-nine who died were “martyrs” and said that their families would be entitled to the same death benefits as the families of those who had fallen during the revolution …