CAIRO — The Egyptian government appeared to have lost control of the major city of Port Said on Saturday after a court sentenced 21 fans to death for their role in a deadly soccer riot. Their supporters attacked police, court buildings and the prison where the condemned were being held.
By evening, fighting in the streets of Port Said had left at least 27 people dead, mostly from gunfire, and injured more than 300. Fearful residents stayed in their homes. Doctors said the hospital was overloaded and pleaded for help. Water had run out in some places. Rioters attacked the Port Said power plant, and for a time closed the main roads to the city.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry acknowledged security forces were unable to control the violence and urged political leaders to try to broker a peace agreement. President Mohammed Morsi met with the National Defense Council, which includes the nation’s top military leaders, and the information minister said the council was considering imposing a curfew and state of emergency.
A spokesman for the Egyptian military said late Saturday that troops had moved in and secured vital facilities, including the prison, the Mediterranean port and the Suez Canal. But in telephone interviews, residents said the streets remained lawless.
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“I’m worried for my sister and mother,” said Ahmed Zangir. “I could run or do something, but it is not safe for them to get out.”
He added: “Thugs are abusing the opportunity. They are everywhere.”
The violence that engulfed Port Said, which has a population of about 600,000, may be the largest challenge yet to Egypt’s new Islamist rulers as they try to re-establish public order after the two years of turmoil that have followed the end of dictator Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy.
The uprising in support of the soccer fans sentenced to death coincided with the third day of clashes between protesters and police in Cairo and in other cities, set off by the second anniversary of the revolt against Mubarak. Those battles were more isolated, typically confined to clashes around symbols of government power, such as the Interior Ministry headquarters in Cairo or the provincial government’s headquarters in Suez.
By Saturday night, those clashes had killed more than a dozen people, including nine in Suez on Friday, state media reported.
The anniversary battles were fueled by a combination of frustration with the meager rewards of the revolution and hostility toward the new Islamist leaders. But the escalating chaos in Port Said following the soccer-riot verdict posed a far greater challenge to those leaders and their promises to enforce the rule of law.
“The solution isn’t a security solution,” Gen. Osama Ismail, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in a television interview. “We urge the political and patriotic leaders and forces to intervene to calm the situation.”
The case that triggered the riot grew out of a deadly brawl last February between rival groups of hard-core fans of soccer teams from Cairo and Port Said at a match in Port Said. The hard-core fans, called Ultras, are known for violence against rival teams or the police.
After Port Said’s Al-Masry soccer team won in a 3-1 upset over the visiting Cairo Al-Ahly team, fans stormed the field. Many in the crowd panicked and ran toward a locked door. In the mayhem, 74 died, largely Al-Ahly supporters, and more than 1,000 were injured. Many died after being trampled under the stampeding crowds or falling from stadium balconies, according to forensic testimony later reported in the state media.
It was the worst soccer riot in Egyptian history and among the worst in the world.
Prosecutors ultimately charged 73 people, most from Port Said, with involvement in the bloodshed, and also charged nine security officers with negligence. Six of the convicted fans remain fugitives. Executions in Egypt are usually carried out by hanging. Saturday’s verdict concerned 21 Port Said defendants, with verdicts for the remaining defendants scheduled to be delivered March 9. Some have been charged with murder and others with assisting the attackers. All the defendants can appeal.
The verdict was awaited with anxiety because any outcome risked the fury of the Ultras from either Port Said or Cairo. The Cairo Ultras staged several raucous protests in recent days, temporarily shutting down subway lines and threatening the Egyptian stock exchange, foreshadowing their wrath in the event the Port Said fans were acquitted.
Because of the fear of violence between the two groups of Ultras, the trial was held in Cairo instead of Port Said. For the same reason, the Interior Ministry declined to transfer the defendants to the Cairo courtroom to hear the verdict, leaving them in detention in their home city.
“The decision was to not pour fuel on fire,” Gen. Mohsen Radi, of the Interior Ministry, explained in an interview published Saturday in the state newspaper Al Ahram.
Rioters also looted and burned a police barracks, set fire to a police station and tried to attack others. They also attacked members of the news media, damaging television cameras being used to film the violence and ending the broadcasts.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group allied with Morsi, blamed the news media for inciting violence against legitimately elected authorities, and political opposition leaders for “silence instead of condemning these crimes, and even in some cases welcoming them.”