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Egypt mourns soccer riot victims; thousands march in Cairo

Egypt declares three days of mourning for the 74 killed in Port Said. Protesters in Cairo focus their rage on security forces and denounce the military ruler.

February 02, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Asmaa Al Zohairy, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptians gathered outside a morgue in Cairo mourn relatives killed in the soccer riot in Port Said. The violence gave rise to suspicion that loyalists of ousted President Hosni Mubarak instigated the riot.
Egyptians gathered outside a morgue in Cairo mourn relatives killed in… (Khalil Hamra / Associated…)

Reporting from Cairo — The coffins came down the hill in an intermittent procession Thursday as families focused their rage on police and military forces for not preventing a soccer riot that left 74 people dead and heightened the lawlessness threatening Egypt's unfinished revolution.

Mothers wept and fathers railed as coffins were carried one by one from the morgue in Cairo. Sisters fainted and brothers, some with their own wounds bandaged, turned their heads as names were called and bodies, many wrapped in sheets, were collected and driven over a rutted road toward cemeteries across the city.

"I only had one child," sobbed a mother, held up by friends. "He was my only one."

PHOTOS: Egypt soccer riot

Moments later, another name was called. A man's hands reached toward the sky, his knees crumpled: "My precious is gone."

Egypt's military ruler declared three days of mourning for those killed Wednesday when hooligans supporting a soccer club in the coastal city of Port Said attacked opposing fans for the Cairo team Ahly with knives, clubs and chairs. The speaker of the parliament condemned the violence as the "work of the devil."

By Thursday evening thousands of protesters had marched on the Interior Ministry in central Cairo, their flares lighting the sky. Many were hard-core Ahly fans, known as Ultras, who have been the muscle at the forefront of some antigovernment rallies. They sought vengeance, hurling stones and attempting to yank down barricades with ropes. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas across barbed wire.

"Down, down with the military!" the Ultras chanted. Nearly 400 were injured, mostly by tear gas. "Tomorrow we step on the face of the field marshal," a reference to military leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

A nation that has known little repose for more than a year was digging graves and dealing with another bewildering affront to the stability it craves. The Port Said governor was forced to resign and his security chief reportedly was arrested. But it was the police and military council who were vilified for incompetence, if not complicity.

"They killed my cousin and now they want to give us money as compensation for him," said Yasmin Mohamed, who waited outside the morgue with dozens of other women and girls draped in black.

Family members and politicians said the riot was instigated by security forces and thugs loyal to toppled President Hosni Mubarak, perhaps in retaliation for Ahly fans' support of the revolution that overthrew the 83-year-old leader.

"The dogs of Mubarak did this," Mohamed said.

Whether such accusations are true may never be known. But they have become part of the conspiracy narrative in a land that has grown increasingly lawless.

"This was an organized crime," Hussein Ibrahim, a lawmaker, said on the floor of the parliament. "The military wants to give us a choice between martial law or chaos. They are the ones accountable for the nation's security."

At the morgue, young men with bandages and slings sat outside waiting to collect the bodies of friends. They said the attack Wednesday appeared to have been planned. Police did not check for weapons at entrances before the game and stood by while Port Said hooligans raced across the field. Stadium doors were locked and there was no escape.

"They came at us with knives, swords and guns," Karim Hakim said. "They threw some people off the stadium walls. This is what Mubarak wanted."

"Yes," said his friend, Mohamed Khaled, "but the field marshal is involved too."

Such suspicions surfaced at a special session of the parliament as well. The newly elected chamber, dominated by Islamists, has been negotiating with the military for a transition of power in June. That relationship was strained as Muslim Brotherhood members criticized the army for its heavy-handed rule and lawmakers said Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim should face criminal charges over the soccer deaths.

"The military council lost its legitimacy today given the blood that has been shed," Mustafa Nagger said in a spirited parliament debate that tested the bounds of challenging the military.

Out on the streets, Mahmoud Moukhtar waved an Ahly flag in the sunlight. He's been a fan for 30 years, as long as Mubarak had been in power:

"The military is working for the old regime," he said. "The military doesn't want change. They want revenge on the revolution and to keep the country corrupt."

Across the Nile, in a poor neighborhood, grocery worker Ahmed Hassan walked up the narrow hill toward the morgue. He passed ambulances, medics wearing plastic gloves and the ashen faces of mothers, frozen in anguish, looking to God.

The dead and injured began arriving in the middle of the night. They returned to Cairo on trains and two army planes. Families started waiting just after dawn, when more bodies wrapped in linen, lying on stretchers or placed in coffins, were slid out of ambulances and station wagons and carried up the hill to the morgue.

"My friend's inside. He was killed. He was 51," Hassan said. "He was a carpenter and had three kids. I saw him yesterday morning. He told me he was going to see the game, but he didn't come back."

PHOTOS: Egypt soccer riot

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Al Zohairy is a special correspondent.

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