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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Off the pitch and on, Egyptians yearn for lasting reforms

By James M. Dorsey

The National

Soccer goes a long way to explain the military's popular support in football-crazy Egypt, which last month forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.

Now, as the public's thirst for greater transparency and liberalization of politics and the economy increases, it's only a matter of time that similar reforms are demanded of the country's military-dominated soccer establishment.

In Egypt, soccer is a means of garnering public support for the military, which helped oust Mr Mubarak and has promised to lead the country to democracy within six months. At least half of the Egyptian Premier League's 16 teams are owned by the military, the police, government ministries or provincial authorities. Military-owned construction companies built 22 of Egypt's soccer stadiums.

The revolt that brought Mr Mubarak down has temporarily put a damper on the return of the military's investment. But like the political reforms being demanded, it's also ushering in some accountability.

Egypt's soccer management officials, many of whom have close ties to the military, are on the defensive as fans focus their people power on nonperforming managers and executives who supported the ousted president while they were in the streets demanding his departure.

Fans demonstrated last week outside the headquarters of Ittahad al Skanadrya, the Alexandria team that is trailing in the premier league, forcing the chairman and three members of the board to resign. A fourth board member was found stabbed in his home (though it is not clear the stabbing was related to the protests). Fans are also demanding the resignations of Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata and two prominent members of the board of the Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, who have close ties to the military but publicly supported the ousted president while their supporters were in Tahrir Square demanding his departure.

Egyptian prosecutors have heard the public's message, and have expanded their military-endorsed anti-corruption campaign to the realm of soccer. State prosecutor Abdul Majid Mahmoud is investigating the affairs of many, including Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Samir Zaher, National Sport Council Chairman Hassan Mohamed Ezzat Sakr, whose portfolio includes soccer, and Egyptian national team goalkeeper coach Ahmed Soliman, according to soccer officials and analysts. Some sources close to the prosecutor also say that Mr Mahmoud is close to filing formal charges.

As soccer historian Yasser Thabat notes: the "prosecutor is expected to indict" Zaher and other officials in the near future.

Egyptian newspaper Al Dostor, meanwhile, recently quoted officials confirming military police had seized documents that prominent soccer official Hassan Hamdy and Osama Saraya, the editor-in-chief of government-owned Al Ahram newspaper, had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor's office. Prosecutors are investigating the documents to verify employees' suspicion that they contained evidence of corruption.

Professional league matches have remained suspended since late January to prevent the pitch from becoming a rallying point for anti-government demonstrations. The military has yet to approve a more than week-old EFA request to lift the suspension, but hopes are high.

Even if the military lifts the ban on professional matches, though, fans may not immediately rush back to the stadium. With good reason, Egyptian soccer fans seem these days more focused on the fate of their country than that of their team. Increasingly, fans fear that popular vigilance is needed to ensure that the military lives up to its promises on all fronts, including on the pitch.

While all of this may not serve the military's economic and political interests, it could well be in the best interest of Egyptian soccer both as a sport and as a business. The combination of fan pressure, changes in management and reduced income could force restructuring of Egyptian soccer, allowing it to function more as a business than as a politically convenient national pastime. That in turn would allow the Premier League as well as the clubs to start creating value through branding, broadcast rights and merchandising.

There is no better way to ensure the game's future independence from political paymasters.

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