Some problems between the people and the police

What Egypt’s latest football tragedy says about social divisions in the country.

Egypt's players celebrate goal. Image credit Amr Abdallah Dalsh for Reuters. Uploaded to Flickr under Creative Commons license.

On Sunday while I sat sipping tea at a French chain café somewhere on the outskirts of Cairo, dozens of football fans were killed at a stadium less than a mile away. To grasp what happened and its significance, it is necessary to understand the landscape in which this tragic event took place. It did not happen in Cairo, as one less familiar with the metropolis’s composition may know it. It was not among the bustling, crowded, cluttered streets of the city proper. This carnage took place in the sleepy, affluent suburb of New Cairo, where the villas are many and the stores are boxy. And while a mile may seem like a substantial distance, in this context, it was right next door.

The Olympic Village of Air Defense Forces, where the football match took place, is part of a sprawling military complex that abuts two major thoroughfares. On the other side of this vast intersection is an enormous shopping and entertainment complex owned and operated by the Al-Futtaim Group, an Emirati conglomerate. While peak hours can see traffic jams, this area is often strikingly empty, and the great swathes of uniform desert make the distances seem like a fraction of what they actually are.

In the afternoon, I had a taxi pick me up to take me to this glossy compound of striking resemblance to the Dubai Airport. He took back roads so as to avoid the game-day traffic, commenting incidentally on the lack of police presence on the roads leading to the stadium. On the trip back two hours later he simply stated that in the interim, there had been “some problems between the people and the police.” It was not until I returned home that I realized what had happened: As I sat sipping tea and listening to elevator music next to a comically grandiose novelty fountain, across the street, completely unbeknownst to me, at least 20 fans were killed (the official death toll as of writing); trampled, suffocated by tear gas, and according to some reports, fired on by security forces (forensics report claims no deaths were caused by live ammunition).

This tragic juxtaposition felt so depressingly representative of the current social and political climate in Egypt, where groups of individuals live next to each other but in completely different worlds, and where one person’s version of the truth, shaped by their experiences or the content they choose to consume, is in direct opposition to the version of reality as understood by their neighbor.

The divergent narratives propagated by state and privately owned media domestically, by international outlets, and of course via social media, fuel this second point. Much of the local media blamed the reckless behavior of ticketless fans for the tragedy, while witnesses alleged excessive force on the part of the police.

Had this event occurred anywhere else in the world, invariably multiple narratives would have emerged. So is the nature of tragedy and panic. However, in the Egyptian context, this offers yet another glimpse into the deep-rooted social polarization, where those who support the government and police blamed the thuggery of fans, and those with deep-rooted suspicion of security forces, borne out of the many well-documented instances of excessive use of force, have labeled it a massacre.

On the other hand, my experience, or lack thereof, is indicative of the literal and figurative barriers that exist in a society where those who can afford to, are able live within protective walls, only looking to see what lays behind the curtain if they so choose. Ask virtually any Egyptian and they will tell you that the breaks from reality are a necessity for maintaining one’s sanity. However beyond that, these barriers reinforce the corrosive social inequalities that have been eating away at Egyptian society for decades.

Since the incident, President Adbel Fatah el-Sisi has called for an inquiry into what happened, and the Egyptian Football Association has pledged to compensate the victim’s families.

While many details about this latest disaster remain murky, what does emerge clearly is a common appeal; that until there is genuine accountability, a restoration of social trust, and systemic efforts to break down social barriers, tragedies like this will continue to occur.

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