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The Egyptian city of Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea is the northern gateway to one of the world's key shipping lanes, the Suez Canal. With its ornate buildings and clean streets, the city has one of the highest standards of living in Egypt. This year, Port Said became known for something uglier. It was the site of Egypt's deadliest soccer riot, and many people there say the tragedy has destroyed Port Said's reputation and left them in financial trouble. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently traveled to Port Said.
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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The main stadium in Port Said sits abandoned these days, like a monument to an event many people here wish they could forget.
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NELSON: In February, violence erupted in the stadium after the home team won a rare victory against a long-time rival from Cairo. Many witnesses say rabid Port Said fans charged their Cairo counterparts. Other witnesses blamed unidentified thugs wielding sticks, knives, and rocks who hid among the Port Said fans. By most accounts, police and security forces did not intervene. By the time it was over, 74 people were dead.
Within days, the Egyptian government sacked the governor, who has yet to be replaced. Later, the top prosecutor charged 75 people with the deaths, including nine senior Port Said police officials.
Egypt's soccer federation cracked down too. It banned the Port Said team for the next two years. The federation also ordered the stadium here shuttered for three years.
Civil Engineer Gamal Heiba is a Port Said representative in Egypt's Upper House of Parliament. He is one of many residents who criticize the punishments as exaggerated and premature.
REPRESENTATIVE GAMAL HEIBA: (Through Translator) We haven't even had a trial yet, let alone a verdict for the people the prosecutor charged. Banning our team and closing our stadium is hurting us financially and is increasing tensions.
NELSON: Those tensions sparked more violence here on March 23rd during a protest against the ban. Dozens of people were injured, and 15-year-old Bilal Mamdouh was killed.
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NELSON: On a recent morning, the boy's family and friends gather at his grave. They say the teenager was on his way home when he came across the soccer fans who were protesting. He was curious and stayed to watch. Security forces turned on the group, firing tear gas, birdshot, and eventually, bullets. Relatives say Bilal was shot twice and died.
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NELSON: Mourners comfort his mother, an observant Muslim, draped in black with only her eyes showing. Her name is Awatef Abdel Rahman.
AWATEF ABDEL RAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She says she can't understand why her son was killed, nor can she grasp why some Egyptian officials and media have described him as a thug. She says he yearned to become a religious leader.
RAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She also says it's hurtful to hear what Egyptians are saying about her city and its residents.
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NELSON: Islam Ezz El Din agrees.
ISLAM EZZ EL DIN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: The 27-year-old, who heads the Port Said team's fan club linked to the fatal soccer riot, says it's disappointing that Egyptians call them murderers or worse. He complains their critics have forgotten that they stood side by side with them in Cairo's Tahrir Square last year to bring down Hosni Mubarak.
Officials and merchants here say Port Said is paying a heavy price for the soccer violence.
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NELSON: Ferries carry Port Said residents back and forth across the Suez Canal. But few other Egyptians come here now to shop for imported clothing and other goods at a reduced tax rate like they used to. Mohammed Ehab is with the local branch of the secular liberal El Ghad party.
MOHAMMED EHAB: After the stadium disaster, especially, no more people are coming to Port Said from outside. So traders are not buying very well, they don't have enough income. It's disastrous.
NELSON: Upper House member Gamal Heiba agrees. He says one solution the Port Said delegation is pursuing is to get parliament to restore the city's one-time duty-free status. That was stripped by Mubarak's government about a decade ago, following an alleged attempt on his life here. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.
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