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    Middle East
     Feb 3, 2012


Egypt caught in spiral of disaster
By Victor Kotsev

Many things that are hard to believe - or explain - happen in Egypt; unfortunately, it all looks more like a spiraling nightmare than a fairy tale in the last year or so. The latest violence on Wednesday, which resulted in at least 74 dead and over 1,000 wounded, and which The New York Times described as "the deadliest soccer riot anywhere in more than 15 years", is a fitting example of that.

The calamity came in the wake of another large brawl on Tuesday, between members of the secular opposition and Muslim Brotherhood supporters who reportedly attempted to block their march against the military government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Over 70 people were wounded in the clashes. [1]

Both events coincided almost perfectly with the anniversary of

 

another odd episode of recent Egyptian history, the February 2, 2011 attack against the opposition in Tahrir Square by supporters of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on horses and camels. [2] The timing, whether a coincidence or not, is unlikely to be that important, but all three events emphasize the unpredictability of the domestic currents in Egypt, and raise suspicions of an invisible hand trying to stir those currents, with a varying success rate.

Other events in this broadly-defined "odd" series include the bombings of the gas pipeline leading into Israel and Jordan and the mob attack against the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September 2011.

While new information about what happened on Wednesday in the Egyptian city of Port Said is still coming to light, the gist of the official story is that fans of two rival Egyptian football teams, the local al-Masry and Cairo's al-Ahly, clashed after a game.

Police had reportedly failed to prevent the smuggling of knives and other dangerous objects inside the stadium (even rumors of gunshot wounds have been reported), and their deployment at the game was insufficient to prevent the disaster, raising further suspicions and accusations.

Some question whether the instigators were football fans, despite the latter's notoriety for violence inside Egypt. "I don't think this is about football," a former player for al-Ahly told the BBC. "These trouble-makers were not football fans." [3]

James Dorsey, writing for Foreign Policy, provides several valuable insights:
As in April, when fans of Al Ahly's arch-rival Zamalek club invaded the pitch during the post-Mubarak era's first African Cup match against a Tunisian team, rumors were swirling in Egypt about the reasons for Wednesday's incident. Some Egyptians speculated that the security forces deliberately allowed the clashes to take place to prove that the police are needed to avoid a breakdown of law and order.

Others suggested that Egypt's military rulers engineered the lack of a police presence in a bid to provoke the ultras and further undermine their credibility in a protest-weary country frustrated with the country's downward economic spiral ... The conspiracy theorists may be on to something: The riots in Port Said will likely strengthen the hand of those in the ruling military council who want to crack down hard on the ultras, who have formed the backbone of street protests that have not quieted down even though Egypt has seated an elected parliament and will soon choose a new president. [4]
The country's military leadership responded by deploying the army to Port Said, declaring three days of national mourning and blaming the police for not doing their job. The interior minister in turn reportedly announced that 47 people linked to the violence had been arrested. [5]

Oddly enough, just as in Tuesday's clashes, the Muslim Brotherhood took a very similar position to that of the current military government. "The reason for this tragedy is the deliberate neglect and absence of the military and the police," a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party told The New York Times. "This will not pass without punishment, a thousand punishments," he added elsewhere in the interview, [6] leaving some ambiguity as to whether he was talking about the police or the participants in the brawl.

The striking shift in the positions of the Muslim Brotherhood [7] can be attributed to its impending status upgrade from opposition to government. The coalition led by them won 47% of parliament seats in the elections that took place in stages over the past months, followed by an ultra-conservative Islamist party, al-Nour, which won 25% of the vote. [8] Despite many ideological differences, some observers see them as potential allies on many issues; certainly, it is practically inconceivable for a government to be formed that is not dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

While, especially after the initial rounds of voting, many saw the results as a potential calamity for the military, in some ways what is happening can be seen as a coup for the generals. It is a golden opportunity to both rein in their archenemy, the Muslim Brotherhood and, down the road, to scapegoat it for all the daunting problems that Egypt faces.

Egypt’s economy, as is becoming increasingly clear, is headed for a disaster. David Goldman (Spengler), writing for Asia Times Online, provides fascinating accounts of both the lack of confidence of Egyptians in their own financial system and the hidden wealth of the army (which reportedly lent the government $1 billion). [9] Various reports over the past months have claimed that large chunks of the Egyptian economy are owned or controlled by high-ranking current and former military officials.

Egyptian foreign currency reserves are dwindling and a major crisis can be expected later this year. Even the urgent aid packages that the World Bank, the European Union and the United States are rumored to be preparing are unlikely to solve the problem for more than a few months. There can be no better time for the military to transfer power to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet the army’s tricks - if this is what we are observing - come at a risk, and carry a price. As of early Thursday morning, thousands of Egyptians were reportedly protesting in Cairo and in other cities against the military rule. If the regime ends up absorbing some of the blame for the disaster, it stands to lose more than it could possibly gain. Now, at least, it may be able to share the losses with the Muslim Brotherhood. Then again, stranger things have happened on the Nile ...

Notes:
1. Egypt Islamists stop protest against military, al-Jazeera, January 31, 2012.
2. Egypt speaker 'plotted battle of the camel', al-Jazeera, July 14, 2011.
3. Egypt football violence leaves many dead in Port Said, BBC, February 1, 2012.
4. Ultra Violence, Foreign Policy, February 1, 2012.
5. Egypt detains 47 people linked to soccer violence , al-Ahram, February 2, 2012.
6. Riot in Egypt Kills More Than 70, and Many Blame Military, The New York Times, February 1, 2012.
7. See also "Al-Beltagy: Enough deaths… People have the right to protect institutions", Aswat Masriya, February 1, 2012.
8. Egypt Elections 2012: Islamists Secure 75 Percent Of Parliament , Huffington Post, January 21, 2012.
9. Failed treasury auction portends Egyptian disaster, Asia Times Online, January 23, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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