By Tom Pfeiffer and Osama Khairy
CAIRO (Reuters) - Lingering enmity between Egyptian soccer fans and police since the country's deadliest stadium disaster could shatter a fragile calm on the streets as the army prepares to hand power to civilians.
Many football supporters are convinced a post-match stampede that left 74 people dead in Port Said on February 1 was deliberately provoked by state security officials still loyal to ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Fans say the Interior Ministry caused the crush to punish visiting supporters of Cairo's Al Ahly club for their role in Mubarak's overthrow last year and subsequent protests demanding democracy and the reform of a widely despised police force.
A parliamentary inquiry blamed fans and shoddy policing for the deaths and the head of state security in Port Said was fired along with the board of the Egyptian Football Association.
The security forces are now refusing to oversee top-flight matches, forcing the sport's governing body to scrap the rest of the season. Many fans agree the cancellation was inevitable, but for some people it sends a message that lawlessness has won.
"Match security is the easiest task for police if it's done with an efficient plan," said Foad Allam, a former police general and security expert. "If they can't secure a game, how can they secure a country?"
The fans' next move may depend on a court case brought over the events in Port Said which opens in Cairo this month. Seventy-five people including nine police officers are charged with crimes ranging from negligence to premeditated murder.
Most of the deaths were of people trampled in the crush of a panicking crowd, while others fell or were thrown from terraces.
A steel door to the stadium was shut, trapping terrified fans, and the arena's floodlights went out during the chaos, fanning suspicions of a conspiracy. Many spectators complained of a tiny police presence despite a tense build-up to the match.
A small group of riot police formed a corridor to try to protect fleeing Al Ahly players, but they appeared overwhelmed and fans were able to kick and punch the players as they fled.
Supporters of the local Port Said team, Al Masry, played down the role of the security services in the disaster, instead blaming years of accumulated tension between rival supporters.
"We were just unlucky that the tension reached its climax in our ground," said one Masry fan, 27-year-old Amr Aouf.
If the police officers are found guilty of having a hand in the deaths, it would add fuel to widespread suspicion among fans that those in charge of law and order are using their positions to discredit the youth movements which unseated Mubarak.
"I think it was planned with the government's involvement. Every single Al Ahly fan is living for revenge against a policeman," said veteran football commentator Alaa Sadek.
SENSE OF BELONGING
Soccer and politics have become more tightly enmeshed in Egypt since hard-core "Ultras" fans emerged there a decade ago to challenge established fan groups, drawing growing numbers of followers with a mixture of aggressive nationalism and fierce club rivalry.
"As there are no 'real' political parties or student unions, we went into soccer," explained one 25-year-old Ultra, Sherif. "Everyone wants to belong to something. We found that in the Ultras."
The Ultras are defined mainly by rivalry between Ultras Ahlawy and their Cairo neighbours, Zamalek's Ultras White Knights.
Their hostility draws on the contrasting history of Egypt's two top clubs, with Al Ahly long associated with nationalists who fought British dominance over Egypt a century ago and Zamalek the team of the monarchy that worked with the colonial administration.
That rivalry took a back seat as thousands of uneducated young men joined their ranks, united by frustration at a lack of prospects and anger towards the government.
They channeled that frustration in a campaign to wrest control of stadiums from the security forces using hand-to-hand combat, often hurling lit flares or plastic bags filled with urine at riot police.
As last year's uprising against Mubarak left the security forces floundering, rival Ultra gangs saw their opportunity and set aside their enmity to combat a common foe.
Their fighting experience made them handy allies for the liberal and left-wing political groups that spearheaded last year's 18-day revolt against Mubarak.
But his overthrow did little to calm the Ultras. In November and December, they were involved in protests against Egypt's ruling military council in the streets around Cairo's Tahrir Square that turned into running battles with the police in which dozens were killed and thousands injured.
Many Egyptians believe the Ultras deserve grudging respect for helping break the wall of fear that cemented Mubarak's grip.
But their continued appetite for violence now sits at odds with the hopes of many Egyptians for an end to the instability that has ravaged the economy and worsened poverty.
Islamists, who now dominate Egyptian politics, condemn violent street protests. When the stadium deaths led to days of clashes in Cairo that killed 15 people, the army rulers warned of destabilising "plots" and "conspiracies".
"They tried to distort our image by telling lies about us to the media, like we are drug addicts," said Sherif. "Then they tried to get rid of us by sending people to kill us ... in the Port Said battle."
With public support for the Ultras waning, some see the Port Said trial due to begin on April 17 as a last chance to reassert their dignity. Match commentator Sadek said millions more fans in soccer-crazy Egypt also want justice for those who died.
"If it is a fair verdict, all will be well. If it does not reflect the scale of the massacre, then expect an explosion in Egypt," he said.
Cancelling league matches has left rich clubs managed by multi-millionaires such as Zamalek and Al Ahly fearing for the fitness of their players - who also make up much of Egypt's national team - while poorer clubs could stand to lose the most.
"This is going to be tough for smaller teams," said Fattouh Al Sawy, general football director for the Ghazl al-Mahalla team. "We now have no income from broadcasting contracts and our players need their money, so this poses a huge challenge."
A new potential flashpoint looms on Sunday, with Al Ahly vowing to go ahead with an African Champions League match against Ethiopian Coffee Sports Club.
The Interior Ministry is refusing to provide security for the fixture but the football association said it has received verbal approval from the ruling military council to hold the game without fans.
Soccer calendars have been a regular victim of the uprisings across the Arab world, with leagues delayed or called off in Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Libya and Yemen.
But Egypt's latest cancellation in a period of relative calm points to a breakdown of trust that might only be healed through compromise, not force.
"Clearly you're going to have to do mediation between these two groups to alleviate some of those hostilities and part of that is reforming the police. But nothing is happening along those lines," said Middle East soccer expert James Dorsey.
(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan, editing by Paul Casciato)