Human rights in Egypt: not a political football

The old cliche about how "x" issue "should not be made into a political football" has been given an ugly twist by events in Egypt.

After the terrible scenes of carnage from the Port Said stadium on Wednesday night, we have various football fans saying that security forces’ inaction was "to blame" for some of the 74 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Meanwhile, football writers like James Montague are pointing out that Egyptian football supporters - including hard-core Italian-style "Ultras" with a record of violence - have long been an important presence in Egypt’s "street politics", including during last year's epic 18-day anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Tahrir Square. It’s being suggested in some quarters that the intertwining of sport and politics is an explanation (of sorts) over how "dark forces" acted against the fans, particularly Cairo's Al Ahly club with its anti-police, anti-authority profile.

It’s complicated and unclear. From my vantage point I obviously don't know whether the Egyptian security forces were involved in this disaster and sought in any way to profit from it. It seems various gates were either open or closed when they shouldn’t have been (some frightening echoes of Hillsborough here). All I'd say is that we should keep an open mind. In Egypt at the moment almost anything seems possible …

One thing that's slightly clearer is the politicisation of the event afterwards. Field Marshall Tantawi has been speaking about how Egypt would "get through this stage" (an unfortunate use of a term associated with football, “qualifying stage” etc) and, more ominously, he goes on to say "If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt they will not succeed. They will get what they deserve".

When you recall Tantawi recently warning that “thugs” will remain the subject of draconian emergency law powers despite these being lifted more generally, you do wonder whether “thugs” (like “hooligans”) is one of those vague and often highly politicised words that can be used in a variety of political contexts, not least by those in power to denounce opponents. Certainly “thuggery” is a catch-all term that’s been used to justify the use of military trial proceedings in some of the thousands of cases concerning civilians during Egypt’s military leadership (check out Amnesty’s campaign to get this stopped).

Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Ian Black quotes the Arabic TV website Masry on the football violence:

This is what happened when thugs and saboteurs are called revolutionists, when looting and sabotage are applauded in the name of freedom and democracy while security measures are labelled as oppression. The military … must stop pandering to thugs and criminals and use an iron fist against all perpetrators … and those who are encouraging these acts, from biased media outlets to opportunist politicians - especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how quick some pro-authority voices in Egypt are to talk of the necessity to use an “iron fist” to smash those that “step out of line” in the country. Weren’t the Mubarak years all about using the iron fist on a regular basis?

Bill Shankly’s famous - and much-quoted line - that football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that, is even further off the mark this week than it ever was. And another thing: various reports of the Port Said violence mention a trigger incident being when a giant banner saying “Port Said is a garbage city and has no men” was unfurled by visiting fans. Oh god, machismo and football strike again. In the week that’s seen an excellent BBC3 documentary about homophobia and British football during Justin Fashanu’s blighted career, it’s depressing to read this. When will football ever kick the bigots out of the game?

(Meanwhile, another plug for the Saturday 11 February Amnesty rally in Trafalgar Square. It's a year on since Mubarak left office. Forget football! Come and demonstrate for a human rights revolution ...).

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