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Fear and loathing in Egypt: The fallout from Port Said

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Story highlights

Chaos erupted in Egypt after 21 people were sentenced to death following a football riot

More than 70 people died after match in Port Said between local club Al Masry and Al Ahly

Egyptian league was suspended and has yet to restart due to threats of further violence

Verdicts for 52 other defendants who were arrested after riot is expected March 9

The faces of more than 70 young men and boys bore down on the crowd of thousands outside Al Ahly’s training complex in Cairo.

As many as 15,000 members of the Ahlawy, the organized ultras fan group of Egypt’s most popular soccer club, had gathered here early for the news they, and the country, had been waiting almost a year to hear.

At 10 a.m. a judge was to deliver a verdict on one of the darkest moments in the history of the game.

It happened on February 1, 2012, when more than 70 – those young men and boys whose faces now appear on a billboard high above the entrance of the club – lost their lives after a match in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, against local club Al Masry.

Most of the dead were crushed when the Al Masry fans stormed the pitch.

The players sprinted for their lives, finding sanctuary in the dressing room. And then the floodlights went out.

When the lights came back on 10 minutes later, the dead lay piled in a tunnel, in front of a locked, metal gate that had prevented escape before it collapsed under the weight of bodies.

Direct action

Seventy-three people were arrested, many accused of murder. They were mostly Al Masry fans, but included several members of the security forces.

The man allegedly responsible for cutting the power to the lights was also arrested. The Ahlawy suspected that a hidden hand was at work.

There were conspiracy theories, many asked questions: was this just a football rivalry gone very wrong? Or did police allow the violence as payback against the ultras for their part in the revolution?

Read: Clashes erupt after Egypt court sentences

The Ahlawy had played a crucial role in the revolution. They were an organized group of tens of the thousands of young men willing to fight the police – as they had both inside and out of Egypt’s soccer stadiums for the previous four years – to make their voices heard.

The authorities denied any collusion. It was a tragic accident, they said. Hooliganism and ineptitude, no more, no less, no hidden hand.

But many of the Ahlawy fans were not convinced. The Egyptian soccer league was canceled and the Ahlawy waged a successful direct action campaign to prevent its restart until justice had been served.

The young men waited for the verdict on Saturday. Several had come armed, in anticipation of a further postponement or, worst still, a not guilty verdict. Some carried clubs, others homemade pistols and double-barreled sawn-off shotguns.

Tear gas

At 10 a.m. the judge rose on national television and delivered his verdict. Twenty-one of the accused were sentenced to death. The verdicts for the remaining defendants are expected March 9.

The news swept through the crowd, reducing those in its path to tears of joy; teenagers who had lost friends, mothers who had lost sons, wives who had lost husbands.