Port Said sees relative calm after contentious verdict

A day after an Egyptian court confirmed the death sentences of 21 Port Said civilians found guilty of causing Egypt’s worst sporting disaster, Port Said remains relatively calm – in stark contrast with the past fortnight, which saw dozens killed.  

Ahead of the verdict’s announcement on Saturday, the streets of Port Said were as empty as they used to be on the nights of important football matches. But this time, people were not huddled around their television sets in anticipation of the results of a match. Rather, they waited to hear the fate of 73 defendants accused of killing Ahly Club fans in a match last year in Port Said stadium.

The Ultras Green Eagles, Port Said's main football ultras group, and other city residents who were gathered to hear the sentence in a cafe stood up in a tense silence when the television showed the judge taking the podium.

People screamed in disbelief and fell into their chairs as the judge started by announcing 21 death sentences. The screams and insults continued as he proceeded to announce the rest of the sentences ranging between life sentences 15 years, 5 years, one year and, finally, 21 acquittals.

The Green Eagles groups knew most of the defendants personally; one of them yelled back the correct name of one of those sentenced to death at the television after the judge mispronounced it.

Despite the anger, the protests that unfolded throughout the day rejecting the verdict were remarkably peaceful save for a few minor and harmless incidents.

The verdicts were expected to trigger a blood bath after the initial death sentences announced by the judge last month led to days of violence, resulting in at least 43 deaths.

 Protesters said that their maintaining peace despite the upsetting news is proof that it's the Interior Ministry and not the protesters that are the cause of the violence.

Their claim is further supported by a 14-day sit-in and civil disobedience campaign that went peacefully until police arrived at the scene.

Following deadly clashes that had renewed last week between protesters and police, all police forces were evacuated from Port Said last night, leaving only military forces.

With a unanimous determination among Port Said residents not to clash with the Armed Forces, whom they historically have a special bond with, they voiced their anger through peaceful marches around the city.

The extent of the violence occurred when protesters entered the port overlooking the Suez Canal, realizing it was the city’s most attention-grabbing site, and set tires on fire. No further escalations occurred, and coordination with military forces monitoring the situation was maintained at all times.

When they started gathering around the local Interior Ministry building now secured by the Armed Forces, a military officer talked the crowd into moving their march away. They complied, cheering for the military and repeating that the regime will not succeed in causing a rift between the people and the military.

Many across the city relayed the feeling that, once again, Port Said was being used as a scapegoat to appease the Ultras Ahlawy crowd and get the police off with lighter sentences, repeating: “[President] Mohamed Morsy sacrificed one governorate to save the other 26."

"We will not object if they give death sentences to those who are proven to have killed people, at the end of the day those who were killed are our brothers, but we don't accept innocent people to take the blame for it just because they are not powerful," said Alaa Darwish, a green grocer.

The acquittals of some of the police officers accused in the case and the decision not sentence any of them to death increased people’s anger across the city, as many blame the police for last year’s massacre. Some even believe that the police orchestrated the massacre to punish the Ultras Ahlawy for their participation in the revolution.

Residents of Port Said spoke of defendants who received death sentences when they weren't even at the match, of underage innocent football fans who were dealt harsh sentences with no evidence of wrongdoing on their part and of strange infiltrators who were seen in the match and did not make it to the court room.

Other residents even played out conspiracy theories that had the state and the Ultras Ahlawy working in tandem against Port Said.

Some protesters, however, were not as concerned with the verdict as they were with getting retribution for their own victims who fell in clashes with police.

“Fine, we accept this verdict, and now we want the right of our dead. If this sentence gave [the ultras] justice, we want justice too," said merchant Sayed Khattab.

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