REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Thousands of protesters marched on the Interior Ministry in Cairo as Egypt began three days of mourning Thursday for 74 people killed in a soccer riot that renewed anger against the nation’s police and ruling military council.
The protesters, many of them die-hard fans from Cairo’s Ahly soccer club, swelled across a bridge over the Nile, marching through Tahrir Square toward the barricaded Interior Ministry.
The military-backed interim government attempted to stem growing rage by announcing a criminal investigation and forcing the resignation of several officials.
Those steps did little to appease families who waited outside a morgue to collect the bodies of their loved ones, most of them young men. Families and politicians blamed the police and the military for incompetence, if not complicity, in the deadly violence that erupted when hooligans from a soccer team in Port Said attacked rival fans from Cairo with knives, clubs and chairs.
Cairo fans in the stadium said police did little to protect them as they were chased toward locked doors by mobs. Families members and politicians said they believed the riot was instigated by security forces and thugs loyal to toppled President Hosni Mubarak. They added that such unrest allows the military to tighten its hold on the country.
“This was an organized crime,” Hussein Ibrahim, a lawmaker, said on the floor of parliament. “The military wants to give us a choice between martial law or chaos. They are the the ones accountable for the nation’s security.”
Another lawmaker, Mustafa Naggar, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said: "The military council lost its legitimacy today given the blood that has been shed."
Protesters marching toward the Interior Ministry chanted: “Down, down with the military” and “Tomorrow we step on the face of the field marshal,” a reference to military leader Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Tantawi declared three days of mourning and warned against unrest: "Egypt will be stable,” he told a TV station. “We have a road map to transfer power to elected civilians. If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt they will not succeed."
The country has been under military rule since Mubarak was overthrown nearly one year ago. The new parliament, dominated by Islamists, convened for the first time last week. A president is expected to be elected in June, when the army has promised to step aside.
“The military is working for the old regime,” said Mahmoud Moukhtar, an Ahly fan. “The regime hasn’t changed, only Hosni Mubarak has changed. The military doesn’t want change. They want revenge on the revolution and to keep the country corrupt.”
By nightfall, protesters were lighting off fireworks and attempting to breach the barricades around the Interior Ministry. Security forces waited on the other side.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman. Special correspondent Asmaa Al Zohairy contributed.
Photo: Thousands of Egyptians march in a protest from the Ahly soccer club to the Interior Ministry headquarters in Cairo on Thursday over the previous day's deadly riots after a football match. Credit: Mahmud Hams / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images