The Egyptian city of Port Said is the northern gateway to one of the world’s key shipping lanes, the Suez Canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. With its ornate buildings and clean streets, the sprawling city has one of the highest standards of living in Egypt.
But this year, Port Said has become known for something more sinister: It was the site of Egypt’s deadliest soccer riot.
Many of the city’s officials and residents say the tragedy has destroyed Port Said’s reputation and left them in financial trouble.
These days, the city’s main stadium sits abandoned, like a monument to an event many people there wish they could forget.
In February, violence erupted in the stadium after the home team won a rare victory against a longtime rival from Cairo.
Many witnesses say rabid Port Said fans charged their Cairo counterparts. Other witnesses blamed unidentified thugs wielding sticks, knives and rocks who hid among the Port Said fans. By most accounts, police and security forces did not intervene.
By the time it was over, 74 people were dead.
Swift Sanctions, More Violence
Within days, the Egyptian government sacked the governor, who has yet to be replaced. Later, the top prosecutor charged 75 people with the deaths, including nine senior Port Said police officials.
Egypt’s soccer federation cracked down, too. It banned the Port Said team for the next two years. The federation also ordered the stadium there shuttered for three years.
Civil engineer Gamal Heiba is a Port Said representative in Egypt’s upper house of parliament. He is one of many residents who criticize the punishments as exaggerated and premature.
“We haven’t even had a trial yet, let alone a verdict, for the people the prosecutor charged,” Heiba says. “Banning our team and closing our stadium is hurting us financially and is increasing tensions.”
Those tensions sparked more violence in Port Said on March 23 during a protest against the ban. Dozens of people were injured, and 15-year-old Bilal Mamdouh was killed.
On a recent morning, the boy’s grieving family and friends gather at his grave. They say the teenager was on his way home when he came across the soccer fans who were protesting. He was curious and stayed to watch.
Security forces turned on the group, firing tear gas, birdshot and eventually, bullets. Relatives say Belal was shot twice and died.
Mourners comfort his mother, Awatef Abdel Rahman, an observant Muslim draped in black with only her eyes showing.
She says she can’t understand why her son was killed. Nor can she grasp why some Egyptian officials and media have described him as a thug. She says he yearned to become a religious leader.
She also says it’s hurtful to hear what Egyptians are saying about her city and its residents.
Paying A Financial Price
Islam Ezz El Din shares that sentiment. The 27-year-old, who heads the Port Said team’s fan club linked to the fatal soccer riot, says it’s disappointing that Egyptians call them murderers or worse.
He complains their critics have forgotten that they stood side by side with them in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year to bring down Hosni Mubarak, the country’s longtime authoritarian ruler.
Officials and merchants in Port Said say the city is paying a heavy price for the soccer violence.
Ferries carry local residents back and forth across the Suez Canal. But few other Egyptians come now to Port Said to shop for imported clothing and other goods at a reduced tax rate like they used to.
Mohammed Ehab is with the local branch of the secular liberal El Ghad party.
“After the stadium disaster especially no more people are coming to Port Said from outside so traders are not buying very well, they don’t have enough income, it’s disastrous,” Ehab says.
Upper house parliamentarian Gamal Heiba agrees. He says one solution the Port Said delegation is pursuing is to get parliament to restore the city’s one-time duty-free status.
Mubarak’s government stripped Port Said of that status about a decade ago after an alleged attempt on his life there.