Amid Egypt's renewed violence, military vows to play on

Posted by Lama Hasan, ABC News

Getty ImagesThe Egyptian military vows to start the country's Premier League season this weekend in closed stadiums despite nationwide protests such as this one Tuesday in Port Said.

CAIRO -- Scenes reminiscent of the Egyptian revolution two years ago - running pitched battles, endless volleys of tear gas, the deadly violence, the chants and slogans - have returned to the streets spreading from city to city across Egypt. Yet somehow, soccer may well return to the country this weekend.

The recent spate of bloody violence shows the deepening divide in Egypt, which only two years ago came together to oust former President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country for 30 years. While there was an undeniable sense of euphoria and hope after the revolution, it has since been replaced with despair and sentiments of betrayal.

-- Carlisle: Bradley on Egypt's emotions

The demonstrations began after the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that toppled Mubarak Jan. 25, 2011. Tens of thousands poured into the streets to commemorate the day, but what ignited the demonstrations and fueled the simmering anger in an already-fragile country was the verdict in the worst and bloodiest soccer violence in the country's history.

Last Saturday, a judge sentenced 21 Port Said fans of the Al-Masry soccer club to death for storming the field during a match in February 2012 and attacking fans of Al-Ahly, their long-time rivals from Cairo. The result was a bloodbath. Seventy-two people, mostly Al-Ahly fans, also known as 'Ultras', were killed and ever since, Al-Ahly fans have demanded justice.

The Ultras have been a vital component of the Egyptian revolution, galvanising people to take to the streets. They are organised and they are unified, often fighting on the frontline with the country’s security forces. Their influence is evident and their power on the streets is growing.

The verdict was celebrated in Cairo. But within minutes of the announcement, family members of those sentenced went on a rampage in Port Said, attacking police stations and government buildings in the coastal city. Police fired back, killing at least 40 and injuring hundreds. The army was deployed to try to seize control and restore order. Egypt's cabinet approved a draft law allowing the army to take part in policing and giving it the power to arrest demonstrators.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s Premier League - suspended after the Port Said tragedy - is due to return this Saturday. Egypt’s Defence Ministry has told the Egyptian Football Association that the competition will start on time and as scheduled. According to the Ministry, all games will take place at military-owned stadiums which have new standards in the wake of the Port Said stadium violence.

But following meetings between government ministers and the EFA, it was decided the first round will be played without fans in the stands.

“The ministry agreed that the first half of the league season will be played at military stadiums according to dates set previously,” the defence ministry said. While it has given the millions of Egyptian soccer fans assurances the games will go ahead, what may dash those hopes is the current violence and instability engulfing the country. Speaking to local media, EFA president Gamal Allam said that the preparations are going ahead as scheduled and that there won't be any postponement or cancellations unless it is required officially.

He also said that football is not a priority right now and that the country's security and peace comes first. With more protests planned for Friday, a day before the season is set to kick off, depending on the outcome of these protests the Egyptian soccer fans may have to wait even longer to watch their favourite teams play.

Many Egyptians believe not much has changed since the fall of Mubarak. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s promises of change and reform have not materialised. Many Egyptians feel there is no sense of accountability nor is there trust in the Muslim Brotherhood’s administration. Protesters we've spoken with have told us they believe Morsi is enforcing the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and trying to Islamize an otherwise-secular Egypt. Under Morsi’s seven-month rule, the economy has suffered, unemployment is high and as a result the Egyptian pound has been devalued. Moreover, some complained of social injustices, the lack of human rights and that nothing has changed since Mubarak left power.

President Morsi took to the airwaves last weekend to address the nation. In an attempt to quell the violence, Morsi announced a state of emergency in three cities and warned protesters he might take further steps "for the sake of Egypt" as it was his "duty" as president, saying "I have said I am against any emergency measures but I have said that if I must stop bloodshed and protect the people, then I will act," adding "If I must, I will do much more for the sake of Egypt. This is my duty and I will not hesitate."

His stern words have done little to stop protesters from battling with the security forces. Thousands defying the curfew turned out in organised marches.

The head of Egypt’s military and Defence Minister General Abdul Fattah al Sisi warned the current political crisis "could lead to a collapse of the state". Al Sisi said such a collapse could "threaten future generations".

Lama Hasan is an ABC News correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @LamaHasan

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