Death toll from Port Said tragedy rises after today’s verdicts

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Another ugly chapter in the Port Said tragedy is playing out in Egypt today with at least 30 dead and more than 200 injured after courts sentenced 21 to death in connection with last February’s stadium disaster.

Looking back on the week leading up to the verdict, it appeared some spark of violence was inevitable. Supporters of Cario-based club Al Ahly, who saw many of their supporters killed in the Feb. 1, 2011 tragedy, looked to judge Sobhy Abdel Maguid’s verdict as an opportunity for justice, threatening their own reaction should judgment not be harsh enough. Fans of Port Said club Al-Masry, however, had been wary of a possibly politically motivated court placing disproportionate blame on their fans.

Violence started soon after the court’s verdict was read, with Egyptian state television reporting gunshots were heard near a Port Said prison were suspects were being detained. Tear gas was also fired in the area of supporters gathered near the facility in support of the accused.

Last February, 79 people were killed after violence at the end of an Al-Masry-Al Ahly match. A panic that started after Al-Masry fans attacked rival supporters led to over 1,000 injuries, the casualties caused by the post-match crush as well as weaponry Al-Masry fans had brought to the match.

Amid security concerns, the rest of the Egyptian Premier League season was subsequently cancelled. The league is scheduled to re-start play on February 2.

Today’s violence reflects Egypt’s still tenuous political state, with Al-Masry supporters having always suspected last year’s tragedy presented an opportunity for the country’s post-Honsi Mubarak government to crack down on a known liberal group. Yet had the verdicts failed to come down hard on those involved in the tragedy, the violence could have been in Cairo. Al Ahly fans would have acted against the perceived lenient sentences on a group of suspects they see as responsible for last year’s deaths. Either way, we would have seen a display of one group’s lack of faith in Egypt’s justice system.

For soccer fans, it’s another example of the game serving as a crude tool for others’ politics, whether that use was intended last February or not. Regardless, after today’s verdict and violent response, the death toll from last year’s disaster is set to rise to 112, should the court’s sentences be carried out.