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Unrest Boils As Egyptian Court Confirms Death Sentences


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A court in Egypt today upheld the death sentences of 21 soccer fans from Port Said for murder during a bloody soccer riot that occurred there last year. And the court's decision apparently enraged the city.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (foreign language spoken)

SIMON: The verdicts were delivered on live television. The judge also handed down more than 50 sentences for another group of men, but this group included nine police officers, and only two of them were sentenced to prison time. This verdict comes in the midst of a political crisis, as Egypt grapples with a deepening security vacuum, and the police are on strike. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from Cairo. Leila, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Help us read the reaction that we just overheard there in Port Said and what's going on in Cairo too.

FADEL: Well, in Port Said, people are angry. They feel they're being punished for this riot that happened last year; for these dozens of people that were killed following a soccer game between a team from Port Said and a team from Cairo. They feel that the police are getting off scot-free while their own sons are getting death sentences and life sentences. So, there's true anger there. And in Cairo, people are really divided. The soccer fans want justice for the people who killed their brethren here in Cairo. And there's real anger that this is just not enough and fear that violence will start.

SIMON: I think Americans always, from the outside, will see deaths at a soccer game and think, well, you know, how does something like that happen? I mean, we have rioters who, it must be noted, overturn a police car in celebration. But can we understand how a riot like that occurs and lives are taken and people come armed to a game?

FADEL: Well, I mean, I think it's a general problem of a breakdown in security in Egypt overall. I mean, this is not a common thing. That Port Said riot was a tragedy here, and it was received that way. It's something that historically and probably the worst sports-related violence in Egypt ever. At the time that it happened, there is no real security, and apparently fans went onto the field with what they call white weapons, which are not guns but knives and other things like that. And the bigger problem was nobody could exit. So, once you had this stampede situation, nobody could really get out and that's where people really blamed the state and the police officers. And that's why they're so angry that nine men are on trial that are police officers, and only two get any jail time - the highest of which was only 15 years - and then 21 soccer fans get death.

SIMON: So, it gets translated in the press as a soccer riot, but for the people who were on the field it felt like a life and death security situation.

FADEL: Right. More than 70 people were killed that day after a soccer game. And so today when we were out with the fans of the Cairo team, they all wore T-shirts with the number 74 on the back and the names of each person that had died. And they all said we want their rights. We want somebody to pay for what happened to them. Actually, I have some sound of them singing about that and how this will start a revolution anew.

CROWD: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Why are the police on strike and how is that affecting security today?

FADEL: Well, basically, the police said, especially the low-ranking officers, the rank-and-file guys, who are out there every day trying to deal with these protests, they said this is enough. We don't want to be the buffer between the Muslim Brotherhood-led leadership and the people. But they've withdrawn into their police stations and they refuse to go on the streets. The interesting thing here is that this may actually help stem violence because the police are really provocation for a lot of these protesters. So, in Port Said already, which has been really dealing with the violence since those first death sentences came in January, we're not really seeing violence today. And the reason for that is police aren't on the street so there's no one to fight with. It's army that's on the streets, it's military that's on the streets right now there.

SIMON: And, of course, all of this arrest occurs at a politically tenuous time for Egypt. How's President Morsi dealing with the police strike and the general Arab discontent?

FADEL: Well, the police strike really is indicative of just how isolated the president, Hamid Morsi, is and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails. They don't have a administrative interior behind them. The opposition, of course, is against them. The protestors on the street want his ouster. And there's this feeling that really it's becoming a one-man rule. So, how do you run a state when you're doing it really alone?

SIMON: NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. Thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.