Middle East

Resentment still felt beneath calm in Port Said

Residents of Port Said gather at a dock on the Suez Canal to demonstrate after the announcement of the final verdict in the case of the Port Said football massacre
Image caption Protesters gathered at a dock beside the Suez Canal after final verdicts in the Port Said football massacre

A few days ago, Mohammad Othman, a driver from Port Said, received an invitation to meet the Egyptian president in Cairo.

Mr Othman voted for President Mohammed Morsi in the elections and had been a supporter of his Muslim Brotherhood party, but he refused to go to the presidential palace.

"I'm a civilised person," he says. "But if you put the president in front of me now I would abuse him and insult him and that is something I wanted to avoid."

Six weeks ago, Mr Othman's son, Adel, 22, a fruit and vegetable vendor, was shot dead by police in Port Said.

In May, Adel's widow is due to give birth to their first child.

"Everything that is beautiful in my life has died," says Mr Othman, crying, and looking across at a large framed photograph of his son.

"The government said they did not use live ammunition, they said they used the simplest ways to protect themselves, but they shot my son, a passer-by."

'A bitter seed'

Image caption Mohammad Othman says his bitterness at the death of his son cannot be assuaged

For many in Port Said, Adel's death, and the killing of dozens of other people in clashes with the police in recent weeks have been further evidence that they are treated like second-class Egyptians.

Banners appeared declaring it "The Republic of Port Said" and the city has become the focus of discontent with Egypt's post-revolution leadership.

Clearly aware of the importance the issue has assumed, President Morsi has been attempting to ease the tensions in Port Said.

The president invited some of the city's aggrieved, and grieving, including Mohamed Othman, to meet him.

Mr Morsi also gave a televised address to the people of Port Said, calling those killed in the recent clashes "martyrs," with all the symbolism, and indeed the compensation, that brings.

But evidently, for many, his efforts have not been enough.

"Dr Mohammed Morsi has planted a bitter seed inside me," says Mr Othman. "Even if he brought me all the honey in the world, it will not remove the bitterness I experienced."

Economic decline

Image caption Many in Port Said feel their input into the economy is not rewarded

So how did the Egyptian government appear to lose control of Port Said?

The people of Port Said, gateway to the Suez Canal, have long felt that the historic sacrifices they made for their country in the wars of 1956 and 1973 have been under-appreciated.

They will also tell you that their considerable input into the Egyptian economy has not been rewarded.

"Hosni Mubarak showed his disregard for us through his economic policies," says Nasr al-Zahra, one of Port Said's leading businessmen.

"We have such a strategic location that if Mubarak had made the right decisions we could have prospered like Dubai," Mr al-Zahra says.

Instead, as more money was channelled from the city into Cairo's coffers, Port Said slipped into economic decline.

Nasr al-Zahra, who has been importing goods to Port Said for more than 30 years, says the change in living standards and in the spirit of the people of Port Said during that time has been startling.

"Things got even worse after the revolution," he says. "Business is bad because of the political instability, joblessness increased, inflation went up."

"Then, on top of everything, there was the huge disaster at the football game."

Threat of anarchy

This is the event that ignited the recent violence in Port Said.

The clashes followed convictions handed out over a terrible outbreak of football violence in Port Said last year.

In February 2012, during a match between the local club, al-Masry and the Cairo-based club, Al-Ahly, home and away fans had traded insults and taunts.

As the final whistle was blown, local fans attacked the visiting al-Ahly fans. Over 70 were stabbed, beaten, kicked and crushed to death.

Naturally, there was outrage. Scores of people from Port Said were arrested in the aftermath of the riot and trials soon began.

As verdicts were expected, the Al-Ahly supporters group, the Ultras - nothing less than a political force in Cairo - took to the streets of the capital threatening violence and anarchy if the sentences were not harsh.

They got what they asked for. In late January, 21 people from Port Said were sentenced to be hanged for their involvement in the riot.

Image caption Mohammad Othman's son, Adel, died in late January

Al-Ahly fans celebrated. It was people in Port Said who rampaged through the streets, attacked the prison in which the defendants were being held, and fought street battles with the police.

That was when Mohamed Othman's son, Adel, was killed.

Piercing scream

The deaths fanned the flames of discontent in the city. President Morsi imposed a state of emergency in Port Said but it was widely flouted and the turmoil continued.

Earlier this month, there were more verdicts in the football case.

When they were announced, we were with the mother and sister of the youngest defendant, Ahmed Adel, who was 15 at the time of the riot.

"I know 100% that he had left the game when the violence was going on," said Ahmed's mother. "He had no part in it, and it is the same with so many of them. They rounded up anybody just to please people in Cairo."

"But he is completely innocent and God willing he will be home soon," she said.

Ahmed's mother let out a prolonged piercing scream as, on the television, the judge announced that Ahmed had been found guilty, and was given a prison term.

More protests ensued across Port Said, including one beside the Suez Canal, where demonstrators considered blocking the path of ships.

"Of course what happened at the match was bad," one protester there told us. "But these verdicts are because they are scared of the al-Ahly Ultras and it is at our expense and it's wrong."

Army brought in

Image caption Members of the military took over security after the withdrawal of Port Said police

The sense of injustice, at the trial verdicts and at the perceived heavy-handedness of the police in Port Said, remains acute.

But the rioting suddenly stopped. The violence came to an end almost overnight as the decision was made to move out the police and move in the army.

While the government security forces were treated with contempt, the soldiers were greeted with celebratory fireworks in Port Said.

"Yes, some mistakes were made by the police which did not help the situation," says Major General Ahmad Ibrahim who served with the police department in Port Said for many years.

"But nobody wanted to see deaths, and of course the police will have to come back, without them there will be chaos," he says.

In fact, in Port Said, where soldiers are now even directing the traffic, some semblance of order is returning.

But an island of military control in his country undoubtedly causes problems for President Morsi, and the army has other duties to perform on the country's borders and in the increasingly tense Sinai Peninsula.

There are unique historic, economic and political factors, together with the recent stadium disaster, that combined to cause Port Said to pull away from the authorities in this dramatic fashion.

But could it catch on?

"The army have certainly had success in Port Said," acknowledges Maj Gen Ibrahim. "Now there are other places, like Ismailiya, Alexandria and Mansura calling for the military to take control."

How President Morsi wins back the people of Port Said could be critical.