By James M. Dorsey
Corruption charges filed against Sameh Fahmy, the former Egyptian petroleum minister
following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, the president, have heightened concerns that cash-strapped football clubs in the country may no longer enjoy generous government support.
These fears are compounded by a second case filed by an Egyptian lawyer against Mr Fahmy that seeks to halt all public funding of Egyptian football.
If successful, the court action would initiate a radical restructuring of football club ownership in Egypt, where half of the country's 16 Premier League teams and many lower league squads are owned by government institutions, the military and the police.
The legal efforts to curtail politically motivated public funding of football heighten the financial crisis confronting clubs as a result of the three-month suspension of Egyptian professional league matches in a bid to prevent football pitches from becoming an opposition rallying points.
They are also likely to wreck efforts by the world football body Fifa to persuade the Egyptian Football Association to reduce public ownership.
As the petroleum minister, Mr Fahmy moved to the forefront of the Mubarak regime's effort to use football to distract Egyptians from economic, social and political problems.
His successor, Abdullah Ghorab, the former chief executive of state-owned Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation, is believed to be less keen on continuing the generous handouts.
Appointed in 1999, Mr Fahmy poured public funds into Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries Club (Enppi), one of the country's football powerhouses. The club was founded in 1980, barely two years after the creation of his ministry.
Mr Fahmy also increased funding for the ministry-owned second-tier clubs Petrol Asyut and Gasco. The funding enabled Enppi to win promotion to the Premier League in 2002, followed by Petrojet a year later.
Backed by Egyptian oil dollars, Enppi and Petrojet moved quickly to sign some of Egypt's top players. Enppi signed the international striker Amr Zaki for 1.5 million Egyptian pounds (Dh925,153) in 2003. He was followed in 2006 by the international winger Ahmed Elmohamady, who last month was sold to the English Premier League club Sunderland for US$3 million (Dh11m). Enppi also signed foreign players, such as the Ghanaian international strikers Eric and Coffi Bekoe.
Mahmoud Saleh, the assistant manager at Enppi, downplayed the threat of reduced funding when he spoke to the government-owned Ahram Online.
"All matters are stable," he said. "The departure of Sameh Fahmy will not affect us at all, because the clubs belong to companies not the minister, or the ministry."
Mr Saleh suggested Enppi's owner, Egyptian Oil and Gas Company, was making millions of pounds and would have no problem maintaining its level of funding.
Mr Fahmy, meanwhile, is insisting he acted on the orders of Mr Mubarak and is standing trial on charges of corruption in pricing Egyptian gas exports, including those to Israel.
Mr Ghorab said he was reviewing Egypt's export contracts with Israel as well as Jordan. Egyptian media, critical of the petroleum ministry's expenditure on football, said it had spent 82m pounds on player acquisitions in the past year.
Hesham Abd Rabou, a lawyer, filed a lawsuit against Mr Fahmy for "spending millions from public money to help Petrojet and Enppi compete for the league title".
He is demanding the ministry disassociate itself from the football clubs. Mr Fahmy was widely criticised by local media for spending too much money on players at Petrojet and Enppi last summer.
The legal action against him has fuelled controversy over a proposal by the Egyptian Football Association to cap salaries as part of an effort to impose financial austerity.
Fans have threatened to boycott matches, while coaches and players warn a cap will undermine Egypt's position as an African football powerhouse.
Coaches and players argue large amounts are paid only by Al Ahly, Egypt's most popular club, and Zamalek.
"The reported amounts in terms of salaries or budget are not true. Walid Soliman [who is known as Egypt's Leo Messi, after the hugely successful Argentinian player] is the highest-paid player in our squad with a 900,000 pounds annual salary. Any other player with the same talent at Al Ahly or Zamalek receives at least three or four million Egyptian pounds per season," Mr Saleh said.