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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Egyptian Interior Ministry threatens to cancel soccer league if fan violence continues


Fans of Egypt’s Al Zamalek soccer club invade the pitch during a game against Tunisia’s Club Africain (File photo)

Fans of Egypt’s Al Zamalek soccer club invade the pitch during a game against Tunisia’s Club Africain (File photo)
The Egyptian Interior Ministry has repeatedly warned the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) that it will cancel this season’s soccer league if militant fans continue to disrupt matches.

The ministry’s latest warning come days after the Confederation of African Football (CAF) meted out stiff punishments to several North African clubs, including crowned Cairo team Al Ahly, for recent fan violence during African championship matches.
Egypt, alongside Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, has witnessed a spurt in soccer violence. Algerian police dispersed on Friday hundreds of fans of soccer clubs Nahd and RCK embroiled in a violent brawl.

“We have received more than a warning letter from the Interior Ministry. They asked us to warn clubs against the use of fireworks and stirring up trouble inside and outside the pitch. In the last letter, they affirmed that the league would be cancelled if the current situation continues,” Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram quoted an EFA spokesman as saying.

The ministry’s warning follows a Tunisian decision earlier this month to close all domestic first league matches to spectators. Algeria reportedly also banned spectators from its top league games while Moroccan authorities have threatened to prematurely halt the soccer season if the violence continues.

CAF last week ordered Al Ahli SC to play their opening African Champions League group stage game in an empty stadium. The punishment was in response to militant Ahly supporters lighting the Cairo stadium last weekend with fireworks during their team’s match against Zambia’s ZESCO United. ZESCO’s Billy Mwanza was taken to hospital with an arm injury after being hit with an object thrown from the stands. Police melted away during the incident, opting not to intervene.

Similar punishments were announced for clubs in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria following fan violence and incidents with players. CAF ordered Cairo club Al Zamalek SC in April to play two African matches behind closed doors and a $80,000 fine after fans invade the pitch during a game against Tunisia’s Club Africain, destroying everything in their path and attacking the referee and players.

The violence in Egypt and Tunisia is the result of a reduced police presence and lax security at matches. Police in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia, viewed as henchmen of the old regimes, have been largely absent or stood aside during incidents in a bid to shore up their tarnished image. They are believed to want to avoid clashes with militant fans and at the same time demonstrate the need for them to enforce law and order.

The absence of the police has led to a far broader break down of law and order in Egypt where a wave of crime and sectarian violence is threatening the country’s transition to democracy. Activists and businessmen fear that it could obstruct economic recovery and spark an authoritarian crackdown. Egypt has witnessed at least three successful jailbreaks in the last two weeks as well as a kidnapping for ransom.

Some fans believe that the soccer incidents are being instigated by supporters of former Egyptian and Tunisian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abedine Ben Ali in a bid to provoke a police crackdown on protesters and the re-introduction of restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly.

The soccer pitch has long been a venue in the Middle East and North Africa for the release of pent-up anger and frustration. Militant soccer fans played a key role in anti-government protests that toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.

Authorities in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria suspended league matches in the first quarter of this year to prevent the pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point. League matches were resumed last month.

A renewed suspension of the matches would hit Egyptian soccer clubs hard. The clubs are still trying to recover from the loss of revenue as a result of the three-month suspension earlier this year.

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