CAIRO - The killing of more than 20 soccer fans outside a Cairo stadium in a melee with security forces has revived scrutiny of police tactics in Egypt less than a month after a woman was shot dead during the dispersal of a peaceful protest marking the anniversary of the 2011 uprising.
The violence late Sunday, which prompted the Cabinet to suspend the national football league indefinitely, dealt a further blow to the military-backed government's attempt to project an image of stability after four years of political turmoil. Three years ago, Egypt witnessed one of the deadliest soccer riots in the sport's history.
In Sunday night's violence, riot police clashed with hundreds of young soccer fans trying to get into the Air Defence stadium, located in a military facility in an eastern Cairo suburb. Police fired tear gas into a narrow corridor full of fans leading into the stadium, setting off a stampede, witnesses said. Authorities said all 22 victims died of suffocation from tear gas and the stampede, according to Hesham Abdel-Hameed, spokesman for the state's forensics agency.
Despite the deaths, the match — between Cairo-based clubs Zemalek and ENPPI — went on, further fueling criticism of insensitivity by authorities. One Zemalek player who refused to play in solidarity with the dead, Omar Gaber, was disciplined with a suspension, according to media reports. Fans at the match appeared aware of the deaths, chanting, "We either win retribution for them or die like they did."
Egypt's public prosecutor ordered an investigation of the violence. Authorities said it was sparked when hard-core Zamalek fans known as Ultras White Knights tried to force their way into the stadium without tickets.
On Monday, pro-government media and the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, sought to deflect blame from the security forces. One TV commentator, Ahmed Moussa, called the victims "thugs" who were breaking the law. Others on TV talk shows accused the government's top rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, of causing the violence.
The president of the Zamalek club, Mortada Mansour, echoed that idea, telling one private TV station that the violence was "orchestrated" to taint upcoming parliamentary elections. "There are people who don't want a state or nation," he said.
Mansour is a staunch supporter of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army chief who has waged a sweeping crackdown on dissent since he led the 2013 overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected leader.
Critics blamed police for a callous disregard for life.
"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.
Television host and columnist Ibrahim Issa pointed at el-Sissi. "You are responsible for the blood that was shed and the youths who died," Issa said on his show, addressing the president. "It is a clear responsibility; a direct political responsibility that is beyond doubt or confusion."
"You go to attend a soccer match, you return a body in a morgue," said Tarek Titto, a political activist who is close to the White Knights.
Hours after the deaths, authorities suspended the Egyptian league. Egypt last did so in 2012 after 74 fans of the Al-Ahly club were killed in rioting following a match in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. That violence sparked outrage at the police and the transitional military council that assumed power following the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
Even after play resumed following that rioting, fans were barred from attending matches. They were only allowed back into stadiums recently, though authorities continue to limit attendance.
In Sunday night's match, security was tight, with fans funneled through multiple checkpoints down narrow passageways.
On their Facebook page, the White Knights said authorities only opened one narrow door in a barbed-wire barrier to let them in. They said that led to pushing and shoving, and police responded with tear gas and birdshot.
One fan, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of fear of being targeted by security forces, said the stampede was caused when police fired tear gas at the tightly packed crowd.
"Those who fell down could not get back up again," the man said.
Another witness, who asked that he only be identified by his first name Mohammed, said police responded with large amounts of tear gas after fans pelted them with rocks.
"When the players' bus approached the stadium, fans cut the road off, sat on the ground to prevent it from entering the stadium and showed the players images of the dead fans" on their cellphones, he said.
"Then, police again fired tear gas, the crowd dispersed and the bus went through."
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.
The police have cracked down hard on demonstrations since Morsi's overthrow, and both secular and Islamist activists have been jailed for violating a draconian law regulating protests that was passed in 2013.
Sunday's violence comes on the heels of another recent death that raised criticism of the police.
Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a 32-year-old mother of a small boy, was shot dead while taking part in a peaceful Jan. 24 march marking the fourth anniversary of the 2011 uprising. Photos and video clips that have been widely distributed online show police pointing rifles at her direction as the sound of gunfire rings out and she falls on the ground.
Widely circulated images of her bleeding out of her mouth and being carried by a male colleague shocked many Egyptians. The chief prosecutor has ordered that her death be investigated and el-Sissi last week called on Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim to find her killers.