Egyptian Crowd Disaster: The Uncomfortably Familiar Echoes Of The Past

February 9, 2015

by Martin Odoni

The news has come through over the last fifteen hours or so of yet another stadium disaster involving football supporters, this time at the Air Defence Stadium in Cairo. It is far too early to get a solid, comprehensive account of what happened, and so I have only a very sketchy understanding as yet. But the almost-one-hundred-and-eighty-degree divergence between the fans’ version of events, and that of the Egyptian police, has chillingly familiar echoes of what used to happen with depressing regularity at football events in the UK – and still happens occasionally even now.

Now I cannot give a lengthy explanation of why the very different accounts of last night are so reminiscent of the very different versions of what caused the Hillsborough Disaster, due to necessary restrictions on public discussion of the 1989 tragedy during the current, ‘rebooted’ Coroner’s Inquests (taking place in Birchwood). But one thing that struck me immediately upon reading the police version of what happened last night is that it contains an identical excuse for bad policing that was frequently put about by the South Yorkshire Constabulary in 1989 – even after the claim had been debunked by the Health & Safety Executive just a few weeks later. This claim was an accusation of widescale ticketlessness among the crowd attempting to gain entry to the stadium. And wouldn’t you know it? The Egyptian Interior Ministry, speaking on behalf of the police, has stated that last night shotgun pellets and tear-gas were deployed against the crowd after – you guessed it – ticketless fans among them tried to break in. The deaths, it is claimed, were caused by a ‘stampede’ triggered by the ensuing panic.

“They tried to break the stadium gates by force, which forced security to stop them.”

Now my reaction to this is one of great skepticism, partly because it is hard to see how the use of shotgun pellets and tear-gas is justified merely by the supposed presence of non-ticket-holders. But partly also because we have very definitely heard this ‘ticketless fans’ narrative before, complete with false references to fans breaking down gates, especially at Hillsborough. And just like at Hillsborough, it raises much the same question: How exactly did the police find out that the fans trying to enter the stadium were ticketless in sufficiently large numbers to extenuate the violent mishandling of the crowd?

If the fans were behaving so badly as they tried to enter the stadium that the deployment of tear gas and shotgun pellets was considered a proportional method of containing them, it seems inconceivable that they were still behaving well enough for the police to be able to check them for tickets (just like, at Hillsborough in 1989, South Yorkshire Police allegations of ‘wild disorder by hundreds of ticketless fans’ actually contradicted the police’s own capacity to find out about their ticketed status one way or the other).

There is indeed no particular indication in either version of last night’s horrors that the Egyptian police made any concerted attempt to check for tickets at all; fans even state quite emphatically that, having been directed into a narrow, gated passageway, many of their number held up tickets without ever being challenged for them, and the police simply ignored them. If this is true, ticketed spectators were denied access to the event they had already paid to attend, which is wrong in itself. But worse, it suggests that the accusation of attempted trespass has been publicly levelled by the Ministry without any sure way of knowing that it is true, which would be both prejudicial and grossly irresponsible.

Equally, if the fan behaviour at the Air Defence Stadium was not violent enough to result in anyone suffering serious injuries or death, and yet the police response did result in serious injuries, and at least twenty-five deaths, it is plainly evident that the response was completely over-the-top, irrespective of anything the crowd might have been doing wrong. It was also a violation of one of the most basic rules of crowd handling that a very large number of people were – apparently deliberately – confined in a very narrow passageway with barbed wire fencing at its exit. That was bound to be a severe safety issue sooner or later, especially as anyone right next to the wire was certain to brush against it occasionally, experiencing pain and heightened panic. Any attempt they might make to move away from the barbed wire was certain to cause knock-on chaos as they would inevitably collide with people behind them, who would in turn bump into people behind them etc, all in a confined space. The perceived attempt to ‘force the barbed-wire gate open’ may well have been precisely that chaos, but in any event, for the police to respond with tear gas was the height of bludgeoning stupidity; tear gas is a very dangerous substance to use as a crowd-dispersal weapon even when a crowd actually has somewhere to disperse to. When they are sealed into a narrow, gated passageway, it can only lead to disaster. The apparent use of a firework by one fan in response to the tear gas was very foolish too, but understandable given how desperate he and the others around him must have been feeling, while the decision by the police to start using live ammunition seems to be another astonishing over-reaction, a display of ignorant non-empathy for the suffering the police’s own actions were already causing. And the claim that all the deaths were the result of the ‘stampede’ (itself a rather loaded word to describe what was an unavoidable panicked mass-retreat) sounds a very dubious assumption, given the use of live ammo.

What we have, in short, appears to be yet more routine victim-blaming by a police force whose mixture of blundering and heavy-handedness has caused far more harm than good, and whose priority is not the good of the public, but the good of its own reputation. As more information about this massacre becomes known, this view of events may have to be revised, but at present, the half-learned lessons of the past teach us to treat everything the Egyptian police are telling us with enormous caution.

May the victims of football’s latest calamity rest in peace, and may their loved ones not have to wait nearly so long as others in the same situation have had to for justice.

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