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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Soccer violence in Egypt and Tunisia threatens credibility of militant fans


Militant, violence prone soccer fans in Egypt and Tunisia are increasingly on the defensive following a serious of match disruptions that have cost clubs dearly.

Stepped up criticism has tarnished the militants' image bolstered by the key role they played in mass anti-government demonstrations that earlier this year toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia and have swept the Middle East and North Africa.

The militants or ultras are highly politicized fan organizations modelled on similar groups in 
Italy and Serbia.

Their years of battle experience garnered in weekly clashes with the police who sought to prevent them from bringing into the stadium banners, flares, fireworks and smoke guns, turned them into the protesters' shock troops.

Ultras' fireworks. Source: www.FilGoal.com

The ultras manned the front lines on Cairo's Tahrir Square in clashes with the police and supporters of former President Hosni Mubarak. They were the destroyers of the barriers of fear that prevented Egyptians and Arabs across the region from rising up earlier against their authoritarian leaders.

Often anarchistic in world outlook, the ultras of Cairo’s two rival clubs, Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC, this month joined forces with the pro-democracy Kefaya movement, Kollana Makawma (We are All the Resistance), a newly formed pro-Palestinian organization, and a plethora of Facebook groups to organize a “march of millions” into Gaza on May 15, the day Israel celebrates its creation and Palestinians mourn the Nakba or catastrophe. Protesters are expected to demand that Egypt halt the supply of gas to Israel and release Palestinians imprisoned in Egypt.

A spate of disturbances in the past two months of domestic league and African championship matches in both Egypt and Tunisia has however sparked fears that ultra tactics could jeopardize their future contribution to peaceful protest and civic society in their countries.

The disruption of African championship games in Cairo and Tunis this weekend further strained their relations with players and clubs.

A match between Al Ahly and Zambia’s ZESCO United in Cairo Stadium was halted for five minutes after Ahly’s supporters lit the stadium with fireworks. ZESCO’s Billy Mwanza was taken to hospital with an arm injury after being hit with an object thrown from the stands.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) is scheduled to this week discuss disciplinary measures to curb increased Tunisian soccer violence. The expected measures are in response to ultras disrupting several domestic league matches as well as an African championship match this weekend between Tunisia’s Club Africain and Sudan’s Al-Hilal in the Rades Olympic Stadium pitch.

Tunisians hope that CAF will be as lenient towards their clubs as it was last month towards Zamalek. CAF rather than banning Zamalek from African matches for the storming by ultras of the pitch in early March in Cairo during an African championship match against Club Africain, ordered the club to play two matches behind closed doors and fined it $80,000.

Tunisian soccer clubs last week asked the government-backed sports betting agency Promosport to increase their funding after the Tunisian Football Federation barred spectators from matches for the rest of the season to prevent further violence. The clubs say they need the increase because of reduced ticket revenues as well as reduced advertising and sponsorship as a result on the ban.

Egyptian clubs fear that they could be hit by a ban on spectators.

League matches in Egypt and Tunisia are still recovering from a financial crisis as a result of the three-month suspension in both countries of professional matches during the anti-government protests. The games were suspended to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point.

Criticism of the ultras by several Al Ahly players has further strained relations with the clubs and spotlighted the ultras’ ambivalent attitude towards the players. The ultras see players as hired guns who play for money with no loyalty to a club. They also feel that players did not reciprocate their support for the clubs by participating in the anti-government protests. Players and coaches were largely absent from the demonstrations and in a few cases expressed support for the ousted leaders.

“We are not happy with what happened. In the end, Ahli will be the only loser when a sanction is imposed. What’s happening in our fields is getting over the line. I am urging the fans to remain clam in order to avoid any problem,” Egypt national team and Ahli defense star Wael Gomaa told Egyptian soccer website FilGoal.com after this weekend’s incident during the match against ZESCO.

“It was bad and dangerous. Thank God for the win, but we do not accept what happened in the stands,” added Al Ahly striker Osama Hosni.

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.

A reduced police presence and lax security at the match is more likely to be a key reason for the incidents. The police, viewed as the henchmen of the ancient regimes, are seeking to shore up their tarnished image in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia and are believed to want to avoid clashes with militant fans and prove the need for them to enforce law and order.

Tunisian fans note that this weekend’s incident took place amid mass protests following assertions by a former interior minister that post-Ben Ali Tunisia was being ruled by a shadow government that was in cahoots with the military to stage a coup to prevent Islamists from making gains in election scheduled for July 24.

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