The Quiet American

From the September issue of Rolling Stone Middle East.


IT WAS WHEN THE ASSAILANT drove his pocket knife at him that Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed began to recite the shahadah, the Muslim affirmation of faith. The air inside Port Said Stadium was brisk but hung thick with the stench of death. Thugs had demanded that Ahmed remove the Ultras Ahlawy T-shirt he wore over two sweatshirts, identifying him as a hard-core supporter of Egypt’s most successful football club, the Cairo-based Al Ahly. “I will not,” he said, his fear masked by defiance. Ahmed’s fate seemed sealed. The knife drew within inches of his midsection. “I started to become a martyr,” he recalls. But at the last moment, he kicked out a leg. The weapon slipped from his would-be murderer’s hand. Ahmed slinked away to temporary safety. He dropped off the offending shirt in a friend’s bag.

Around him, the slaughter continued. High in the stands, fellow Ahlawys were hurled to their deaths on the terraces below. Others died from blows to the head delivered by sticks loaded with nails. Lifeless bodies lay under seats and in the aisles. Ahmed spotted three of his friends among them.

These are the images that 19-year-old Ahmed relives on a daily basis. A high-school student in Cairo whose boyish face has yet to fully shed its baby fat, he has been consumed for months by the haunting memories of that night. “Every day, I was thinking. Every day,” he says. “I was repeating the songs about the martyrs that we created. And then I couldn’t think about my studies, my exams, my life. I just think that I will wake up tomorrow and go to the court.” Seventy-five people, including nine police officers, are on trial in connection with 74 deaths at the stadium.

There were two marquee matchups on the Egyptian Premier League calendar that night – Wednesday, February 1st: Ahly and Masry were scheduled to kick off in Port Said in the early evening, Ahly’s two biggest rivals – Zamalek and Ismaily – were to face off immediately afterwards at Cairo International Stadium.

The Egyptian national team head coach, Bob Bradley, tuned into the first match with his wife Lindsay from his hotel room in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Zamalek. Bradley, an American, was hired by Egypt in September last year, less than two months after being unceremoniously dumped as U.S. coach, a post he had held for more than four years. At halftime, Zak Abdel-Fattah, Bradley’s Egyptian-American goalkeeping coach and longtime confidante, joined him and Lindsay for the ride to Cairo Stadium. They reached Bradley’s box above the halfway line just in time to catch the last few minutes of Ahly-Masry on television.

Inside Port Said Stadium, Ahmed had grown anxious. Insults rained down on the more than 1,000 traveling supporters. He had heard warnings against coming to the Mediterranean city, 125 miles northeast of Cairo. The two sets of fans had a history of bad blood; a fight had broken out the previous season in the corresponding fixture. Ahly fans raised a banner suggesting there were no men in Port Said. Some Masry fans unsuccessfully tried to storm the Ahly section in the first half. As nightfall descended, a few of Ahmed’s friends decided they had had enough and returned to Cairo.

When the final whistle blew, Masry having secured a precious 3-1 victory over the club beloved by millions of Egyptians, reviled by millions more for their success and perceived coziness with the country’s political elite, a number of Masry supporters leapt out of the stands and onto the pitch. The riot-gear-clad police who ringed the running track around the field didn’t attempt to intervene. They neatly parted as the hordes – at first hundreds, then thousands – surged through. Ahly’s players sprinted for their lives, escaping through an exit at the east end of the ground.

Back in Cairo, Bradley and Abdel-Fattah watched on TV. Neither thought much of it. Pitch invasions at Egyptian football matches – particularly since the 2011 revolution – were commonplace.

But Ahmed immediately sensed trouble. From his position close to the track, he spotted the wave bearing down on him. “When I saw these people coming to us, I was scared, and then I was climbing up,” he says. “In this case, most of the people tried to climb up like me. But we couldn’t see any doors open. And the doors – they were blocked. We didn’t know what we should do.” One Ultra, named Youssef, struggled to pry a gate open, but it collapsed, crushing him and others. Four-and-a-half minutes after the assault began, the stadium lights cut out. The assailants, wielding neon-green light sticks, carried on.

The attack, Ahmed estimates, lasted only about 15 minutes before the killers melted away into the darkness. Security officials finally entered the terraces to direct the survivors down to the field. They were kept there for the next two hours. There was some crying, and a lot of silence. Ambulances whisked away the casualties.

Bradley and Abdel-Fattah had since turned their attention to the match in front of them, but after 20 minutes, word of a fatality in Port Said filtered through to their box. Minutes later, it was two dead. Then more. The game was suspended at halftime. Bradley, Lindsay, and Abdel-Fattah hurried to the exit. As they left, they could see part of the stadium’s upper deck in flames, reportedly set alight by angry fans.

Bradley spent much of the night glued to the television. The jumpy footage of the mob racing across the Port Said turf rolled again and again. At Ramses Station in downtown Cairo, thousands gathered to meet the returning Ultras. Their wrath was focused on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Cries of, “We will secure their rights or die like them” reverberated off the station walls.

Ahmed’s train reached the station at around 4.30 a.m. He took a short taxi ride home. “I hugged my mother and my father, and then I thanked Allah that I was still alive,” he says. “And then I slept in the same clothes.”

To read the rest, click here.

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