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Analysis: Egypt soccer sentence riots show a country out of control

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Egyptian security forces keep watch as protesters burn tires in Port Said, east of Cairo, Egypt, March 9, 2013.

News analysis

CAIRO -- If there is any doubt that security in Egypt is on the skids, witness Saturday’s events that lay bare a nation where  police are now unable or unwilling to maintain law and order and citizens no longer fear authority. The country held its breath Saturday morning after a judge declared verdicts against suspects accused of involvement in the killing of 72 soccer fans after a match in the city of Port Said last January. The initial verdict of 21 death sentences sparked weeks of riots in Suez Canal cities.

The judge upheld 21 sentences of death by hanging, sentenced two senior police officers to 15-year terms, 22 civilians to terms ranging from life to one year, and acquitted 28 other individuals. The Ultras, rabid supporters of the Ahly soccer team whose fans were targeted in last year’s attack, went on a rampage because seven policemen had been among those acquitted.

They torched and ransacked the Cairo headquarters of Egypt’s Football Association and set fire to the nearby Police Club. After the blaze was brought under control, workers emerged from the still smoldering building with arms full of trophies they had salvaged. The Ministry of Health says five men were injured in the blazes. Two helicopters carrying suspended baskets of water flew overhead.  Protests continued on the main street bordering the Nile, where the head of Emergency Services says one demonstrator has succumbed to tear gas inhalation.

Attacks appeared to be continuing into the evening. Protesters began to set fire to shops affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in downtown Cairo later on Saturday. Ultras posted this warning on their Facebook page today: “What happened today in Cairo is only the beginning of our rage. Even more of it will surface if all officials involved in the massacre are not put on trial. We will not be placated by the sentencing of just two police ‘dogs’.”

In Port Said, citizens enraged that the judge confirmed the death sentence of 21 fellow residents took to the streets. Some unsuccessfully tried to impede ferry traffic across the Suez Canal and set speedboats adrift. Egypt’s naval presence along the Suez Canal was reinforced to prevent any further attempts by protesters to disrupt shipping. On Friday, police forces pulled out of the Suez Canal leaving the military in charge after failing to quell weeks of rioting.

Meanwhile, thousands of police throughout Egypt have gone on strike because they believe interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim is too close to the Muslim Brotherhood and has politicized the ministry, pitting police against the people and putting civilians in danger. Sixty police stations have closed down in protest. Police complain they are often put in positions during demonstrations where they are obliged to either attack civilians and face possible charges of police brutality or risk their own lives, and they have demanded Ibrahim’s resignation. In response, the Minister has sacked the head of the Central Security Forces.

Al Gamaa Al-Islamiya, a former militant Islamic Group turned peaceful, announced in a statement they would form security militias to fill the security void in the southern city of Assiut, where police are striking.

To further add to the chaos, Egypt’s interior ministry raised the level of emergency in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday after receiving information that jihadist groups intend to attack police installations in the Sinai. 

Angry soccer fans took to the streets of Cairo Saturday, storming Egypt's soccer federation headquarters and setting it on fire. Two people were killed. NBC's Lester Holt reports.