CAIRO (AP) — The killing of more than 20 soccer fans outside a Cairo stadium in a melee with security forces has revived scrutiny of police tactics in Egypt less than a month after a woman was shot dead during the dispersal of a peaceful protest marking the anniversary of the 2011 uprising.
The violence late Sunday, which prompted the Cabinet to suspend the national football league indefinitely, came three years after Egypt witnessed one of the deadliest soccer riots in the sport's history, and dealt a further blow to the military-backed government's attempt to project an image of stability after four years of political turmoil.
The Cabinet announced the suspension of the national league late Sunday after riot police clashed with hundreds of soccer fans and fired tear gas to clear a narrow corridor leading to the Air Defense stadium in an eastern Cairo suburb, setting off a deadly stampede.
Egypt last suspended the league in 2012 after 74 fans were killed in rioting that broke out following a match in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. That violence sparked outrage at the police and the transitional military council that had assumed power following the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
Fans have only recently been allowed back in stadiums, but authorities continue to limit the number who can attend.
Egypt's public prosecutor has ordered an investigation of the violence.
On Monday, pro-government media and the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, sought to deflect blame from the security forces. The president of Zamalek, lawyer Mortada Mansour, told a private TV station that police did not open fire on the club's fans, as was widely reported on social media, and that Sunday's violence was "orchestrated" to foil upcoming parliamentary elections. Prominent pro-government commentator Ahmed Moussa warned against calling the victims "martyrs," saying they attempted to break the law. "Thugs cannot be martyrs," he said late Sunday on television.
Mansour is a staunch supporter of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army chief who has waged a sweeping crackdown on dissent since he led the 2013 overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected leader.
Authorities say Sunday's violence began when hundreds of hard-core Zamalek fans known as Ultras White Knights tried to force their way into the stadium to attend the soccer match without tickets.
On their Facebook page, the White Knights said authorities only opened one narrow, barbed-wire door to let them in. They said that led to pushing and shoving, and that police responded with tear gas and birdshot.
One fan, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of fear of being targeted by security forces, said the stampede was caused by police, who fired tear gas at the tightly packed crowd.
"Those who fell down could not get back up again," the man said.
Another witness, who asked that he only be identified by his first name Mohammed, said police responded with large amounts of tear gas after fans pelted them with rocks.
"When the players' bus approached the stadium, fans cut the road off, sat on the ground to prevent it from entering the stadium and showed the players images of the dead fans" on their cellphones, he said.
"Then, police again fired tear gas, the crowd dispersed and the bus went through."
Tarek Titto, a political activist who is close to the White Knights, said that when he visited Cairo's main morgue late Sunday the families of the dead were being asked to sign declarations that their loved ones died of suffocation during a stampede.
"You go to attend a soccer match, you return a body in a morgue," he said, adding that he expected the White Knights would retaliate somehow.
The White Knights and other soccer fans were at the forefront of the protests that gripped Egypt during and after the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. The police have cracked down hard on demonstrations since Morsi's overthrow, and both secular and Islamist activists have been jailed for violating a draconian law regulating protests that was passed in 2013.
Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a 32-year-old mother of a small boy, was shot dead while taking part in a peaceful Jan. 24 march marking the fourth anniversary of the 2011 uprising. Photos and video clips that have been widely distributed online show police pointing rifles at her direction as the sound of gunfire rings out and she falls on the ground.
Widely circulated images of her bleeding out of her mouth and being carried by a male colleague shocked many Egyptians. The chief prosecutor has ordered that her death be thoroughly investigated and el-Sissi last week called on Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim to find her killers.
The most violent episode involving police was the dispersal of massive pro-Morsi protest camps in August 2013, when hundreds of protesters were killed in a matter of hours.
Sunday's match, pitting Zamalek against ENPPI, two Cairo-based teams, kicked off more than an hour behind schedule. Zamalek is leading the league, with ENPPI three points behind in second place. The teams drew 1-1.
Fans attending the match in the stadium were apparently aware of the clashes and fatalities outside.
They chanted: "We either win retribution for them or die like they did."
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