By James M. Dorsey
Egyptian Information Minister Osama Heikal has suspended state television director Ahmed al-Hun for broadcasting protests by militant soccer fans against the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) during a soccer match.
The suspension of Mr. Hun for not “complying with the ethics and conduct of Egyptian media, which must maintain the values and morals of our society” comes amid a military-backed government crackdown on critical media voices.
Officials said Mr. Hun and his team would be questioned.
"This is the first time a minister has acted so quickly in a media case like this," said EFA spokesman Azmi Megahed
The measure against Mr. Hun follows the arrest last month of prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel Fatah that has taken activists and journalists aback. Activists and journalists see the moves as an effort by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to silence its critics as it tries preserve its Mubarak era political, economic and commercial privileges in the new Egypt emerging after the toppling of the former president early this year.
Mr. Abdel Fatah’s mother, Laila Sueif, a university professor has gone on hunger strike to protest her son’s arrest.
Mr Abdel Fattah was detained for a renewable 15-day period at the end of October because he refused to answer questions from a military prosecutor. An appeal against his detention was rejected last week.
A harsh critic of the SCAF, Mr. Abdel Fatah refused to answer questions because, he said, he rejected military trials for civilians. He had received a summons after he criticised the council for its violent response to a protest by Coptic Christians last month, which led to the deaths of 27 people.
He now faces an array of charges that could see him in jail for years. These include attacking military personnel, stealing army weapons and inciting violence.
In an ironic twist, the military, initially seen as the country’s liberator, has reverted to controversial Mubarak era-style military trials in which so far some 12,000 Egyptians, including protesters, activists and militant soccer fans, have been processed in brief in-camera hearings.
A prominent Egyptian TV talk show host, Yosri Fouda of the Last Word on private satellite channel ONTV last month suspended his broadcasts in protest at media censorship. Mr. Fouda said there was "a noticeable deterioration in media freedoms" and rising journalistic discontent about the ruling military's media policy.
Militant soccer fans, who played a key role in mass anti-government protests that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 11, have since been in the forefront of demands that the military stick to its pledge to lead Egypt to democracy, clean out Mubarak supporters from the bureaucracy and stamp out corruption.
The fans demand that the resignation of the Mubarak era board of the EFA, which they accuse of mismanagement and corruption. In response, EFA president Samir Zaher has pledged to step down before his term ends at the end of next year, but has yet to say when. Militant fans have also forced Mubarak-appointees to resign from the boards of several Premier League clubs.
Mr. Hun was suspended for broadcasting pictures on Monday during crowned Cairo club Al Ahly’s match against ENNPI showing fans unfurling a huge banner denouncing the EFA as thieves and taunting the EFA and Mr. Zaher as remnants of the corrupt Mubarak regime. Amid a flurry of fireworks, the fans also took the media to task for supporting government efforts to curb their militant ways of cheering their team with fireworks, flares, smoke guns and loud chanting.
Mr. Zaher has warned that the disturbances caused by the militants could lead to a suspension or cancellation of the current premier league season. The EFA recently ordered Al Ahly and its arch rival Al Zamalek to play two home matches behind closed doors because of militant fan conduct.
The penalties were declared following a last month’s decision by the EFA to hold clubs responsible for the conduct of their fans. The clubs object to the decision, arguing that the guidelines hold them responsible not only for the actions during a match of their own fans but also for those of the opposing club.
The EFA is trying to curb politically motivated militant soccer fan activism that since early September resulted in repeated clashes with security forces in which more than 150 people have been wounded as well as the fans participating in the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo in which three people died and some 1,200 others were wounded.
Fourteen soccer fans are standing trial in two different cases for the riots. The courts are scheduled to issue verdicts in late November.
In response to the EFA measures, Zamalek fans on Tuesday invaded Cairo Stadium during their teams match against Ittihad al-Shorta, the premier league team owned by the police. Dozens were arrested in clashes with security forces. Local TV channels broadcast images of riot police armed with batons carrying a limp body up the stairs of the stadium.
“It is very difficult to continue playing amid these troubles. We tried to prevent riots, but supporters considered the punishments provocative. What Zamalek supporters did is a violation of all rules. Where is the security necessary to continue the league?” Mr. Zaher said on Egyptian TV.
In a statement, the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant Zamalek support group responded to Mr. Zaher, saying that “these people are remnants of the former regime. They will not determine our destiny. We suffered a lot from injustice and repression in the past, but we stood up to that with pride. We fought with all our might to maintain our principles and freedom. We thought justice and freedom would come after our revolution. We will continue in our defence of freedom even with our blood. Our war with the EFA will continue until we win and see the corrupt people in prison.”
The clashes occurred against the backdrop of mounting anger against the police, whose image is already tarnished as having acted as Mubarak’s henchmen during the ancient regime, because of a series of shootings in recent weeks. Demonstrators in the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan earlier this week set tires on fire to protest the shooting of a tourist boat owner.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.