Policing Football in Times of Exception

29 March 2015

 On February 8, 2015, at least 19 fans died while waiting to enter the Air Defense Stadium for the match between Zamalek and ENPPI – it was the first Egyptian league game to allow spectators, albeit a small number, after a three-year ban that was put in place in the wake of the Port Said Stadium disaster which left 72 dead in February 2012. The Air Defense Stadium deaths were caused by a human crush that resulted from the police firing teargas into the very tight entrance where fans were packed before the start of the game. But was the tragedy triggered by a sudden surge in crowds, as the police claimed, or did political vendettas and heavy-handed policing practices have a bigger role to play?


The history of football stadium disasters is a long one – the complex nature of the environment make football games prone to such accidents. The slightest slip-up can cause a crushing stampede of spectators, and there are plenty of things that can go wrong, from engineering failures and structural collapses to overcrowding coupled with poor safety and emergency measures. Although fan violence is rarely the sole cause, there have also been fatal accidents triggered by fans rioting or attacking opposing fans because of an unfavorable referee call.

Additionally, there is bad policing, which encompasses poor emergency response, negligence or, in some cases, heavy-handed crowd control practices that exacerbate the situation. But it was not just the persistence of rough policing tactics that caused the Air Defense Stadium deaths. In order to understand how 19 people died in a crush in a relatively small crowd of ten thousand, we need to examine how the state’s relationship with football crowds has evolved over the past few years.

The Aftermath of Port Said

The Egyptian state has been widely criticized for its reaction to the 2012 Port Said Stadium disaster, when fan violence, police apathy, and one closed gate left people trapped in a death tunnel and trampling on each other, killing 72. Around that time, police reform was still a hotly debated topic in Egypt, but it continued to stall until the window of opportunity closed. A botched prosecution and a sham trial followed. One senior police officer was convicted (a retrial, however, has been ordered). No serious attempt was made to address police practice in crowd control and emergency response, much less the bigger issues of de-politicization and accountability.

The local league was suspended. It resumed less than a year later but fans were not allowed into stadiums. Only occasionally were small numbers of fans allowed to attend African competitions and national team games. It is simply ridiculous that this prohibition dragged for almost three years, but the football establishment had no issue with the Ministry of Interior’s resistance to bringing things back to normal. After all, the Ministry thrives in the state of exception, and for the football moguls, the money was still coming in from broadcasting rights.

Nevertheless, members of Egypt’s political elite are passionate football fans too. Perhaps they were concerned with the rapid and seemingly unstoppable decline of Egyptian football, especially after Egypt’s most recent failure to qualify for the African Cup of Nations. They slightly softened their stance on the issue of fans —acknowledging that that they may be necessary after all. But nothing had changed during the three-year prohibition, except that the police became exponentially more violent and human casualties became a daily news item in Egypt.

A History of Tear Gassing Football Fans

The worst football tragedy the world has ever seen was the Peru-Argentina game at Lima Estadio Nacional Disaster in 1964, which left at least 328 people dead according to official estimates. There were 53,000 people in the stadium— about 5% of Lima’s population at the time. When the referee disallowed a goal for Peru, two angry fans stormed the pitch. While removing one of the fans, the police brutally assaulted him, kicking and dragging him on the ground. In response, more fans stormed the pitch and fired missiles at the police. Firing tear gas in a stadium is almost always a terrible idea. The Peruvian police did exactly that and made an already panicked crowd even more scared, which set off a stampede that killed hundreds. Most of those 328 died in the exit tunnel, similar to the Ibrox Stadium disaster and the Luzhniki Stadium disaster, and to Port Said in 2012.

“We don’t know what would have happened if they had removed him in a peaceful fashion, but we can’t think about that now,” said Chumpitas, a Peruvian player in an interview with the BBC in 2014. So many similar accidents could have been avoided. It is worth mentioning here the more recent Harare stadium stampede in 2000, where the police fired teargas at rowdy Zimbabwean fans causing a stampede that killed 12 and left the players writhing on the ground from the effects of the tear gas. In terms of numbers, the worst stadium disaster in Africa’s history happened in Ghana in May 2001. Two late goals scored by home team Hearts of Oak turned the game upside down and the fans of Asante Kotoko went about dismantling seats and throwing bottles. The police responded by firing tear gas and plastic bullets setting off a stampede that caused 127 deaths, mostly from compressive asphyxia.

Cairo Stadium used to host around 100,000 fans in the biggest games—and actually fit more than 120,000 fans on more than one occasion— until it was turned into an all-seater stadium with reduced capacity before the 2006 African Cup. Tickets were almost always an issue in the most popular games, and there was a seemingly unending numbers of fans, with and without tickets, trying to get in. Compromises were occasionally made and more fans than should have been allowed were let into the stadium. When things got out of hand, the riot control police was set upon the fans. Their tool for crowd control was mostly charging the crowds with horses and beating at them with batons and whips. The outcome was that some of the less committed fans drew back and gave up on trying to get in, even if they had tickets.

Prior to the January 25 Revolution, the police rarely dealt with big crowds and so many Egyptian citizens were unaware of the use of such barbaric policing tactics. But if you were a stadium-going football fan in Egypt, it is not unlikely that you had been on the receiving end of the lash of a whip at least once. Still, no one ever died in a stampede at Cairo stadium, with crowds as large as 15 times bigger than that at the February 8 game, which the police claimed overwhelmed them last Sunday. The only accident that occurred in the last 25 years was in Alexandria in 1999; eight fans died when crowds amassed outside the stadium on a Ramadan day and officials refused to open the gates until after Iftar.

The Egyptian Police Take the Center Stage

This time around, the Egyptian police has really topped itself and its counterparts across history, despite the fact that the number of casualties pale in comparison. The police had somehow decided that it was acceptable, as a crowd control measure, to squeeze a crowd of ten thousand through a makeshift cage made from barbed wire leading into the Air Defense Stadium grounds, and then tear gas them if they complained. This video, taken by a fan who was able to climb away from the inevitable crush shows the agitation of fans inside the barbed wire-topped entryway. The sound of tear gas canisters being fired can be heard in the background.

The police response and subsequent deaths have nothing to do with overcrowding or fan violence. It has everything to do with the Ministry of Interior and Zamalek management’s desire to show fans, specifically the group of “Ultras” supporters known as the White Knights, that they are in charge. The chair of Zamalek’s executive board, the notorious Mortada Mansour, more statist than the state itself, has an axe to grind with the White Knights and has been trying to introduce complicated bureaucratic procedure for fans to be allowed to purchase tickets. Football news websites published a copy of what was apparently Mansour’s suggestion to the Football Association as a prerequisite for bringing back fans: a lengthy application form that needs to be filled and signed before a ticket is purchased. The Egyptian Football Association never really set out guidelines for stadium ground management, and in today’s Egypt, lacking in any kind of institutional checks, the likes of Mortada Mansour can make rules out of their wildest control fantasies. We know that ten thousand tickets were issued for the Zamalek and ENPPI game, and that the club administration gave away five thousand as invitations. The rest were not sold at usual points of sale outside the club.

A few days before the game, Mansour magnanimously said in a press release that fans will be allowed to attend the game for free, as a “gift to the fans of Zamalek.” There was obviously a lot of confusion, and some supporters may have assumed that they only needed to show up and queue outside the stadium. The Ministry of Interior statement, which was released less than an hour after the accident happened, put the blame on the fans, claiming that fans without tickets tried to force their way into the stadium. Abundant video footage and eyewitness accounts show that this was not the case – no one tried to force their way in to the stadium. The real problem, rather, was that funneling spectators into that barbed wire cage was bound to create chaos. When the cage started collapsing and fans tried to escape, the police attempted to beat spectators back into the line. The police were clearly in a very irritable mood, waiting for the slightest agitation to showcase their new zero-tolerance attitude.

The United Kingdom shares with Egypt a place in the upper ranks on the list of countries with the highest number of deaths at football stadium disasters, both in terms of the number of incidents and the number of casualties. It also has its fair share of passionate and occasionally overzealous football supporter groups. In the aftermath of the 1971 Ibrox stadium disaster, the Green Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds was published and then updated after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The document is intended for the managers and operators of football stadiums. It offers guidelines and practical solutions for ensuring safety on stadium grounds: early-warning systems; tools for calculating safe capacity and appropriate crowd densities; and safe circulation and fan segregation, as well as safe ejection if needed.

Some of these solutions require significant resources, and some are simply beyond the capacity and thinking of Egypt’s security institutions—for instance, the guide suggests developing and practicing contingency plans to deal with events like large scale ticket forgeries, surging of fans, and pitch invasions. That would be asking too much of the Ministry of Interior.

Nevertheless, the guide also offers some very basic, common sense solutions that do not require much investment or institutional change. For instance, in the section on managing circulation during ingress, is a very simple idea: “If the number queuing is greater than can be admitted at the prevailing rate of admission, wherever possible, extra turnstiles should be opened to cope with the demand.” This could have been done on February 8, easily, and many deaths would have been avoided.

But did the Egyptian police really face a problem of stadium overcrowding? With the number of fans estimated to be no more than a third of the stadium’s capacity, it was obviously rather a problem of rigid policing attitudes— an insistence on a no-compromise policy, coupled with the police’s increasing disregard for human life. The growing problem with the Egyptian police after the revolution is that they view everything through the lens of being a challenge to their authority. Their top priority is to ensure that they are never challenged, whether by a crowd of protesters or a crowd of football fans. It is virtually impossible to convince a police officer in Egypt that his job sometimes entails compromising on something because of a prevalent belief that the police’s mandate is to showcase state power. No one died in the 1980s and 1990s when the police had to manage crowds of up to 150,000 outside Cairo Stadium. But today, a certain fear of being perceived to be compromising is increasingly gripping the police even in the most mundane of their daily tasks. At least 19 had to die on February 8 so that society as a whole, and football fans in particular, know who is boss—a lesson that we have already learned, multiple times, over the last few years. 

This article has been published via Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) in 24 Feb 2015