Fans of Cairo's Ahly soccer club celebrate at their club premises… (Amr Nabil / AP Photo )
CAIRO -- Deadly clashes erupted in the Egyptian city of Port Said after 21 soccer hooligans were sentenced to death for killing rival fans in a riot last year that became a dangerous subplot to the nation’s wider unrest and political schisms.
Gunshots and tear gas volleys rang out between security forces and supporters of the Masry soccer club after the verdicts were read. Relatives of the accused attempted to storm the jail where soccer fans and former police officials charged in the 2012 stadium melee are imprisoned.
Two police officers and five protesters were reported killed Saturday. [Updated, 7:01 a.m. Jan. 26: Later reports raised the toll to at least 22 dead, 20 of them protesters.] Mobs ran through the streets chanting, “Oh, you dirty government.” Tensions intensified over fears that angry bands of men would take up guns, which have streamed onto Egypt’s black market from Libya and other countries.
By late morning, the Egyptian army had deployed to Port Said to protect the prison and other government buildings.
The violence, which followed Friday’s deadly protests against the Islamist-led government, revealed how frayed and desperate Egypt has become two years after the toppling of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The verdict in the soccer riot case was nervously anticipated as another flashpoint for bloodshed.
The accused Masry fans were charged in the deaths of 74 fans from Cairo’s Ahly soccer club during a match in Port Said last February. Hardcore Ahly supporters, known as Ultras, had in recent days threatened to attack police and government institutions across the country if death penalties were not handed down.
Former police officers charged in the case are expected to be sentenced in March. The Ahly Ultras claim security forces orchestrated the stadium attack as retribution for the group’s long resistance to the police state and its role in the uprising that brought down Mubarak. The Ultras said Saturday they would not react until the sentencing of 54 other defendants, including the former officers.
“We are waiting for the March 9 verdict,” said an Ultra fan who asked not to give his name. “This fight was between us and those responsible from the military, police, and government. We vowed retribution or chaos. We will take our revenge.”
The father of one of those killed in the stadium riot was happy with Saturday’s sentencing.
“We are satisfied with this verdict and God willing the rest of the defendants will receive the same sentence,” said Bassem El Dessouky. “I thank God first and then the Ultras, they are respectful youth who helped us and stood by us every step of the way."
But across Port Said women wailed and men raced through the streets in rage. Many said that that the verdicts made scapegoats of the fans while postponing the fates of former police and security officers. Masry supporters believe former members of the Mubarak regime instigated the soccer riot to destabilize the country.
"The police are thugs!" families yelled inside the courtroom before the verdict was read.