Cairo’s Anxious Days: The Revolution’s Anniversary and a Soccer Riot Verdict

Jan. 25 is the second anniversary of the ouster of Mubarak and while rancor is deep between the political factions, violence could be greater on Jan. 26 when a verdict is due in the Port Said soccer deaths

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Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Protesters flee from tear gas fired by riot police during clashes after protesters removed a concrete barrier at Qasr al-Aini Street near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Jan. 24, 2013.

The streets of Cairo were largely clear on Thursday and the normally cacophonous megacity was unusually tranquil thanks to a national holiday celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. But the day’s calm was temporary, coming in advance of what promises to be a chaotic and volatile weekend–in a country that has recently known little other than chaotic volatility.

Friday Jan. 25 marks the two-year anniversary of the start of the landmark 18-day popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power. The ensuing two years have been marked–as much as anything–by divisiveness and polarization. Those two traits seem certain to be on full display. Massive protests are planned in both Tahrir Square and across town outside the Presidential palace where longtime Muslim Brotherhood official Mohammed Morsi now holds power as the nation’s first elected civilian President.

(MORE: No Glimmers of Hope’: Two Years After Egypt’s Revolution, an Economic Crisis Looms)

The protests promise to be both a rekindling of the revolutionary “Republic of Tahrir” and a display of defiant opposition to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. The day also seems certain to be steeped in both anger and nostalgia for the brief revolutionary window when both secularists and Islamists united in opposition to Mubarak’s rule.

That unity started to break down almost as soon as Mubarak left the stage. After more than a year in which the military controlled the country–to almost everyone’s dissatisfaction–now it is the Islamists in power and the largely secular forces in increasingly angry opposition. The last few months in particular have witnessed a dramatic deterioration of that already problematic relationship. Morsi’s late-November power play to force through a highly divisive constitution have burned all bridges between the camps–leaving little more than a public shouting match in place of national consensus.

But despite the bitterness on display few expect Friday’s anniversary to be marred by too much serious violence. Ziad Akl, a political scientist and activist, predicted there would inevitably be some minor clashes along the edges of Tahrir with groups of more radical protesters attempting to reach the nearby parliament building and Interior ministry. The police will likely use water cannons and tear gas but will be reluctant to deploy heavier methods. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has openly told its people to stay away from Tahrir on Friday, reducing the kind of confrontation that left several people dead outside the presidential palace in December.

“There’s going to be a festive spirit in general and I think it’s going to be pretty safe.” Akl said. “There will be large crowds and there’s strength in numbers. The police and the Muslim Brotherhood will be very conservative.”

The expectations for the following day are much more dire. On Jan. 26, a court is scheduled to rule on the case of the country’s worst-ever instance of soccer violence. On Feb. 1, 2012, after a match between Cairo’s Ahly Club and Port Said’s Masry Club, fans of Masry allegedly stormed the field and attacked their rivals. Police on the scene largely stood aside and in the ensuing violence and stampede, 72 people–mostly Ahly fans–were killed.

(MORE: Cairo’s New Normal: Protests Spawn a World of Walls and Barricades)

In the year since, the case has become an intensely personal cause for the contingent of hardcore Ahly Club fans known as the Ultras. They emerged as a powerful protest bloc after the revolution, known for their clever R-rated chants and their absolute hatred of the police and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The Ultras charge that the Port Said deaths were a set-up by the police and military to punish them for their opposition and demanded nothing less than the conviction of senior Interior Ministry officials.

On trial  are 73 defendants, including nine security officials, three Masry soccer club officials and a number of fans. On Wednesday the Ultras staged a bold public show of force that seemed specifically designed to demonstrate their ability to cripple the central part of the capital. In a series of coordinated moves, groups of Ultras blocked both lanes of the October 6 bridge–a crucial overpass through the city–and staged an underground march on the tracks of the Cairo subway. The twin protests lasted less than two hours, but that was more than enough to bring central Cairo to an absolute standstill and send a clear message of more-to-come if Saturday’s verdict isn’t to the Ultras’ satisfaction.

(PHOTOS: Egypt’s Revolution in Retrospect: TIME Goes to Tahrir Square)

“It has been nearly a year since the most atrocious massacre in the history of sport occurred, a massacre planned by the military council dogs, and carried out by the thugs of the Interior [Ministry] in conjunction with a stupid and murdering audience,” said a Facebook statement by the Ultras.

There’s a healthy chance that Saturday’s session won’t produce a verdict at all. Prosecutors this week requested an 11th hour extension due to the sudden appearance of new evidence. But given the increasing radicalization of the Ultras in recent months, even a delay will probably result in some sort of hard-to-predict violence.

“There’s absolutely nothing the court can do” that will satisfy the Ultras, said Akl, who has closely studied the Ultras phenomenon. “The pressure that’s been building for the past year, it simply has to blow up.”

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation

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