Survivors described it as a corridor of death: a narrow route of high, chain-link security fences and barbed wire that thousands of soccer fans were filing through before entering the stadium to watch their team play.
Then, mayhem broke out. Those at the front of the line were turned back by police. Those in the back continued to press forward. Jittery police fired tear gas into the middle of the crowd, creating what survivors said was “like a whirlpool” – sucking people into a crush of bodies with no way out.
The stampede killed 22 people Sunday night at the Air Defense stadium, a military facility in an eastern suburb of Cairo, prior to the game between Egyptian Premier League clubs Zamalek and ENPPI.
The scene was all too familiar. Almost three years to the day, 74 soccer fans were killed in unprecedented stadium riot in Port Said where the Al-Masry team hosted a match with rival Al-Ahly of Cairo as police watched and failed to intervene. That Feb. 1, 2012, bloodshed prompted the cancellation of the national championship, further entrenching the hostility between police and soccer fans.
Political factions Monday called for the resignation of the interior minister, who heads the security forces. Police were criticized for incompetence and for callous disregard for life. In a further show of insensitivity, Sunday’s match went ahead despite the deaths, ending in a 1-1 tie. A Zamalek player who refused to play was punished, with the team cancelling his contract.
Many saw the violence as political – police settling scores with fans who have often clashed with security forces even before the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and other unrest that has followed in the country.
“I never thought they would fire tear gas here. I thought it would be impossible, and they would realize that people would for sure die,” Mahmoud, a 27-year-old survivor, told The Associated Press.
He said he climbed one of the fences to escape when a boy about 12 years old begged him to pull him up too. When he did, both tumbled back into the tangle of panicked people.
“People were fainting. Everyone stepped over the other,” said Mahmoud, who asked to be identified by only his first name for fear of police reprisal. “My luck was I was the last on the pile.”
Sunday’s match was the first Egyptian Premier League game in which fans were allowed back into the stadiums since the 2012 riot, adding to the excitement and eagerness of the fans of Zamalek, one of Egypt’s two top teams. Before Sunday, crowds had been banned from attending.
Only 10,000 tickets were distributed for the 35,000-seat stadium, but hundreds more tried to enter. The crowds had to make their way through slow security searches and the corridor of fences that led to a single, small secondary gate – not the larger main entrance.
The Interior Ministry said the violence began when fans without tickets tried to force their way in. Another survivor, a 22-year-old Zamalek fan who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution, said the crowd arrived more than three hours before the match. Fans were getting agitated by the slow security searches, and the police were getting nervous, he added.
Finally, police just shut the gate and allowed no one else to enter, and they beat some at the front with sticks, he added.
As the front part of the crowd turned back, others in the narrow corridor pressed forward, and the tear gas hit. Authorities said all 22 victims died of suffocation from tear gas and the stampede, according to Hesham Abdel-Hameed, a spokesman for the state’s forensics agency.
“It was a circle of death,” the 22-year-old soccer fan said. “It was like a whirlpool – whoever was pulled will never make it back up.”
Those at the bottom of the pile grasped desperately at shoes and clothes of those above them, trying to claw their way out.
Another witness said he was injured by birdshot.
Most of the dead were from a group of young, hard-core Zamalek supporters known as the Ultras White Knights. Though their members come from many different political movements, the White Knights and other such fan groups are united by a hatred of the police and have clashed with them in the past.
President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi ordered an investigation into the “root causes” of the deaths. But with hundreds killed in police crackdowns since the military’s 2013 overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, few expected security forces to be held accountable for Sunday’s deaths. Both secular and Islamist activists have been jailed for violating a draconian law from 2013 that regulates protests.
Despite the soccer tragedy, el-Sissi kept to his schedule on Monday with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin. They both went to the Cairo Opera House, where the symphony was performing excerpts from “Swan Lake” and “Aida.”
Pro-government TV commentators quickly sought to distance the security forces from any responsibility. One called the victims “thugs” who were breaking the law. Others accused the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, the top opponents of the government, of stirring up the fans to cause instability.
The president of the Zamalek club, Mortada Mansour, a staunch backer of security agencies, echoed that idea, telling one private TV station that the violence was “orchestrated” to taint upcoming parliamentary elections.
But even among some usually pro-government commentators, there was sense of shock. Sportscasters on soccer talk shows asked how fans could be killed simply for not having tickets.
Television host and columnist Ibrahim Eissa pointed to el-Sissi.
“You are responsible for the blood that was shed and the youths who died,” Eissa said on his show, addressing the president. “It is a clear responsibility; a direct political responsibility that is beyond doubt or confusion.”
“This is a very clear incident with only two parties: youth who wanted to go watch a game and police who prevented them and, in doing so, killed them,” said Mamdouh Eid, the executive director of an organization of fans of the Al-Ahly club, Egypt’s other top soccer team.
“There are no third parties, no conspiracies, no Islamists. It is the police,” he said.
The White Knights and other soccer fans were at the forefront of the protests that gripped Egypt during and after the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. Ever since, they have also been subject to the crackdown that has hit most dissenting voices.
Among a number of White Knights members who gathered Monday at Cairo’s morgue looking for victims, there was a sense of resignation and little appetite to protest now.
“Going down in the streets now would only mean more people would die,” one fan said glumly.
Sitting next to him was a fan of the Al-Ahly club – normally a bitter rival of Zamalek but there as a show of support.
“There is nothing more to keep us in this country. Let the people blindly beat the drums for (el-Sissi),” the Al-Ahly fan said.
Still, a few passers-by urged the Ultras to protest.
“You are dying either way. Do something!” one woman, dressed all in black, barked at the fans.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.