Egypt's tragedy: This is not just soccer violence

74 people dead.

It doesn't add up. Port Said's Masry soccer team won 3-1 against its long-time rival Ahly. In Port Said. It was a tough victory, one that Masry won with the support of its fans. The logical question would be, then, "Why would the Masry fans attack the minority of Ahly fans among them?"

From there on, the questions just don't stop. "Why did neither the governor of Port Said nor its security chief attend a game they both normally attend?" asked parliamentarian Mohamed Abou Hamed on live television earlier tonight. "Why were security forces barely present despite knowing that the long rivalry between the two teams had a potential for violence?"

It's true that the team rivalry is old, and that the most dedicated fans -- the Ultras, as they are known in Egypt -- don't shy from confrontation. Years ago, for instance, Ahly fans once broke into the Masry club and stole some of their trophies.

I say all this because many of the first media reports ended with a variation of the statement "soccer in Egypt has a high potential of violence." Only it doesn't. There has been the occasional violent incident, but even championship games normally end without a hiccup, or else with the most hot-headed supporters exchanging insults or, at worst, throwing things at each other. I'm not trying to defend any of that behavior, of course. But my point is -- they don't kill 74 people. Again, something just doesn't add up.

Especially when you learn that the Ultras, those organized and ultra-motivated fans, had proved since January 25 that they were the stuff revolutions were made of. The mostly Cairo-based Ahly Ultras teamed up with their counterparts from their main crosstown rivals -- Zamalek's Ultras White Knights -- and, well, gave Mubarak's goons hell. Their presence -- with the moral support they provided through their loud, sometimes funny and occasionally obscene anti-government chants, but also their courage when it came to fending off violent policemen -- could make or break a protest.

It is those same police goons who were supposed to guarantee order in the stadium tonight. (It should be noted that there has been absolutely no reform of the police since the revolution.)

Like I said. Something really doesn't add up.

The immediate flow of information proved it. Normally the stadium managers carefully control how the teams and the visiting fans are let out. This time, though, the gates were opened immediately after the game ended, and supporters were also allowed to invade the pitch -- something that almost never happens. The very scarce policemen who were present did not attempt to break up the fights.

74 dead. That's 74 families that will not sleep tonight. Or the night after that. That's 74 bodies on a morgue table. Some, the autopsy will reveal, were trampled or died of asphyxiation. Others -- those with injuries to the face or chest or elsewhere -- will probably have "fatal trauma," that horribly vague phrase, printed on their death certificates. Assuming, of course, that the death certificates are issued properly. As I write this, I'm getting reports that some bodies have been taken to a state hospital amid fears that the doctors may be pressured by the police to alter their report. (That has certainly happened before in Cairo.) Most of the dead, again from what we gather from witness accounts, were Ahly fans, some of them Ultras. Many were also Port-Saidis who took the former's defense. One policeman also lost his life.

And Egypt is on fire, but through the tears one can still see clearly.

On the streets and on the web, blame is put squarely on the police. Once again it failed miserably, as it has for the past year. Blame is also being put on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the SCAF, as the head of the executive branch.

Now thousands of people -- many Ahly Ultras but not only them -- are marching to the Cairo police station, awaiting the train carrying team supporters and the bodies of those who were killed. And, just as they always do, in joy or adversity, they are chanting. Against SCAF, against the Ministry of Interior, against the sluggish SCAF-appointed prime minister who (as someone quipped on Twitter) is probably still looking for his slippers so that he can get out of bed and go see what the fuss is about. We're not out of the woods yet. Risks of retaliation against Port Saidis are limited but real. Images of queues, until midnight, of the Port Saidis lining up in front of hospitals to donate blood for the injured have been heartwarming, and the resignation of the board of the Masry team was the honorable thing to do. Nevertheless, anti-Port Said chants have been heard in Cairo, and tension needs to be monitored and observed.

Parliamentarians have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the security failure. Another MP, Ziad El Elaimy, said that a mistake of these proportions could only be deliberate. In this he shares the opinion of many Egyptians who believe that the security shortcoming was intended, and that the police, with SCAF's blessing, had sent saboteurs into the midst of the fans to teach the Ahly Ultras a lesson.

The head of the military junta, field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, opted to put the blame on unidentified "citizens." Even more importantly, he seemed to be asking people to take the law into their own hands, declaring that, "we hope that all the Egyptian people will come together... Those who committed those acts are Egyptian citizens, aren't they? How come Egyptians are allowing them to remain, are not stopping them?"

"Them" invariably refers to "activists." "Them." This wouldn't be the first time that the army has exhorted people to do its bidding. Back in October, during the infamous Maspero protest that left 24 people dead, state television asked "honorable citizens" to "go out and defend the army" against protesters.

Tomorrow will be a defining day. First there's the young parliament. If it takes a forceful stand and demands accountability from the executive branch, from the Port Said police all the way up to Tantawi, it will indeed prove itself to be the "Revolution's Parliament." But there's the chance that the Ministry of the Interior will get its way by managing to push through a new emergency law that would give it sweeping powers under the guise of "battling chaos." (It made a case along precisely these lines to Parliament last week.)

Then there is the possibility of fresh street protests. A demonstration is planned for tomorrow that will leave Ahly and head to the Ministry of Interior. The symbolism is enormous, needless to say -- and it is only compounded by the fact that tomorrow, February 2, is the anniversary of last year's "Battle of the Camels." That was when government-paid, police-armed, army-approved thugs attacked the protesters in Tahrir square on horse- and camelback in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the 2011 revolution.

A little while ago a train from Port Said arrived at Cairo station. The live reports are heartbreaking. Boys are looking for their friends. Families are calling for their children. Mothers are crying as they realize they might never see their kids again.

How much hope can Egyptians dare to have?

In the meantime, Egypt has declared three days of national mourning. The revolution continues, one day at a time.

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Who's to blame for Burma's economic misery

Last week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a statement saying that Burma has a chance to become "the next economic frontier in Asia." But the IMF went on to note that the country can realize its potential only "if it can turn its rich natural resources, young labor force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies in the world" to its advantage.

In a word, it's up to the government.

Contrary to what you might think from the headlines, it's not western sanctions that are causing Burma's economic woes. It's government policy. The Burmese government's Industry Minister, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, admitted as much when he responded to a journalist who asked whether the country has done enough to get U.S. sanctions lifted: "We have a lot of things to reform and lots of things have to change: laws, regulations and institutions, not only in the political sector but also in the economic sectors. But sanctions are up to them."

In 2004, the well-known U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that sanctions against Burma had "systematically weakened the economy by limiting trade, investment and foreign aid." It's an argument that many critics of sanctions have made.

The media love to use terms like "pariah," "isolated," and "closed" whenever they describe Burma and the effects of sanctions on the country.

If the term "pariah" denotes a country that utterly disregards international norms and behavior, and correspondingly meets with unrelenting censure from the international community, then that's a pretty good fit for Burma. But when the word is used in a way that's supposed to characterize the country's overall economic position (invariably in combination with words like "closed" and "isolated"), then it doesn't describe the situation at all.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2010 Burma's exports and imports stood at $8.7 billion and $4.9 billion respectively. That's higher than the data for some of the comparable members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), such as Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, many experts caution that the official figures for Burma's exports fall far short of the real numbers because they don't cover the value of timber, gems, narcotics, rice, and other products smuggled to neighboring countries.

As far as foreign direct investment (FDI) is concerned, Burma reached a record high in 2010-11 of almost $20 billion. That's more than the figure in the same year for Southeast Asia's latest investment darling, Vietnam.

These facts suggest that Burma's exposure to trade and FDI is higher today than ever before, and even higher than that of some comparable ASEAN countries. In this light it becomes extremely hard to argue that sanctions have deprived Burma of FDI and trade, much less that Burma is "isolated" or "closed." (This also offers an eloquent commentary on how ineffective the sanctions regime has actually been.)

Of course, sanctions do have negative effects on the economy (for instance, job losses in garment industry after the 2003 sanctions imposed by the U.S.), and there are many spillovers to other sectors, ranging from education to the growth of civil society. But the government cannot use sanctions as an excuse for its mismanagement and kleptocratic corruption.

Given this extent of economic involvement with the outside world, Burma should boast a good growth rate and corresponding improvements in the lives of its citizens. But the socioeconomic indicators tell a different story. For instance, since 1988 Burma's GDP has grown at an annual average rate of 2.9 percent, the lowest in the Greater Mekong Subregion. The 2010 UNDP Human Development Index ranked Burma 132 out of 169 countries. The country is the lowest in Southeast Asia (Laos and Cambodia ranked 122 and 124 respectively). What's wrong with this picture?

The problems are twofold. First, the regime has tailored trade liberalization policy to benefit the natural resource extraction sector. The FDI that has come into the country has also focused on natural resource extraction and hydropower. Agriculture and manufacturing received a mere one percent of FDI because of the many problems that plague these sectors, including poor infrastructure, unfavorable exchange rates, electricity shortages, the lack of skilled workers, and so on and so forth. Since the natural resource extraction sector is capital intensive, most of the benefits go to those who own the capital. And that means the military conglomerates, which control almost all the capital in a society that is starved of private capital. As result, the distribution of income is highly uneven. The military takes the biggest share and most of the population never sees any benefit.

Second, the regime does not re-invest that revenue in education, health care, or necessary infrastructure. Instead, for example, it has plowed money into building the wasteful new capital Naypyidaw at a cost of about 1 to 2 percent of GDP, according to the IMF. By the government's own official statistics, it allocated 23.6 percent ($2 billion) of the 2011 budget to military spending, while the country spends a mere 1.3 percent on health ($110 million) and 4.13 percent ($349 million) on education. Some experts estimate that actual military spending amounts to as much as 60 percent of the overall budget. No wonder the country is mired in poverty.

The IMF's statement calls on the Burmese government to use revenues from natural resources "to build human capital and infrastructure." The Fund describes these as the "key priorities to alleviate poverty and reduce bottlenecks to industrialization."

Burma's third session of Parliament, which opened last Thursday in Naypyidaw, is now set to discuss the budget for the 2012/2013 fiscal year. This will be a litmus test for the new pseudo-civilian government. We will soon see whether it is willing to "redefine national spending priorities and bring fiscal transparency," as the IMF suggests, or whether, instead, everything stays the way it's been until now.

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