Protesters pray as their compatriots stand guard to prevent them from throwing stones at riot police during clashes near the Interior Ministry in Cairo February 4, 2012. (Source: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)
By James M. Dorsey
With the street battles in Cairo between militant soccer fans and protesters becoming ever more vicious, the death of 74 supporters of crowned Cairo soccer club Al Ahli SC in Port Said is sparking a reconciliation among once implacable foes while at the same time solidifying emerging fault lines in Egyptian society.
Budding ties between arch rival ultras – militant, well-organized, highly-politicized, street-battled hardened soccer fans – of Al Ahly and its arch rival, Cairo’s storied Al Zamalek SC, have been boosted by the lethal incident in Port Said.
Ultras of the two Cairo teams who had battled one and other for years stood a year ago for the first time in their five-year old history shoulder-to-shoulder on Tahrir Square manning the front lines of the protests that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. They were the first to absorb attacks by security forces and Mubarak loyalists.
Throughout the year, ultras of both teams repeatedly found themselves on the same side against a common enemy during the storming of the offices of the hated State Security Service, which has since been renamed the National Security Force; protests demanding the resignation of the now dismissed board of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA); the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo last September; and vicious street battles in November and December in streets near Tahrir in support of their call for an immediate return to their barracks of Egypt’s military rulers. Some 50 people died and more than 1,000 were wounded in those clashes.
With many Egyptians convinced that the incident in Port Said constituted a planned, deliberate targeting of the Al Ahly ultras, ultras of all stripes see the incident as an attack on all ultras in a bid to break their resolve as the most militant opposition to the military’s designs to shape the future of Egypt in its image in a bid to preserve their Mubarak era perks and privileges.
As a result, ultras of Al Ahly and Al Zamalek are again together braving tear gas and birdshot in their effort to storm the interior ministry in central Cairo, under which the hated police and security forces resort. At least 12 people have been killed and hundreds wounded.
Ironically, the Port Said tragedy immediately after a match in which the city’s Al Masri SC defeated Al Ahly, may help restructure strained relations in Egyptian soccer and launch it on a badly needed road of reform.
The failure of the overwhelming majority of players to support last year’s uprising against Mr. Mubarak had further strained relations with the ultras who view themselves as the only true supporters of their clubs. To them, players are hired guns willing to switch allegiances for money while management consists largely of corrupt Mubarak appointees. Al Ahly ultras last March unfolded a huge banner addressed to players during their team’s friendly against Harras El-Hodoud that read: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you."
Players have since pressured the ultras unsuccessfully to moderate their support tactics that include the use of fireworks, flares, smoke guns and abusive chanting because the clubs were being penalized.
However, in a sign of the changing times, the Al Ahly ultras this weekend apologized on an especially created Facebook page named “We are sorry Shika” to Zamalek winger Mahmoud Abdel-Razek aka Shikabala, widely viewed as Egypt’s top player, for routinely abusing him verbally during their clubs’ derbies. The abuse frequently lead to Shikabala and Al Ahly fans trading insults in heated exchanges.
Responding in an interview on the Zamalek club’s website, Shikabala welcomed the apology. “Despite the cruelty of what happened in Port Said, this disaster played a role in uniting the fans of all clubs. It might be a turning point in ending intolerance and hatred in Egyptian football. I will go to the Ahly club along with my teammates to offer our condolences to the families of Port Said martyrs. The fans of Ahly are my brothers. I hope Ahly and Zamalek fans can sit together in the stands without barriers," he said.
Players, fans and clubs may also find common ground in opposing a demand by Sepp Blatter, the president of world soccer body FIFA that the government reinstates the EFA board dismissed in the wake of Port Said on the grounds that its firing constituted political interference. Clubs and fans have been demanding the resignation of the board for the past year. Mr. Blatter’s call rings hallow given that the board consists of Mubarak appointees who further the ousted president’s efforts to control and manipulate the game to his political benefit.
It also rings hallow given the fact that despite a nominal 2013 FIFA deadline for a restructuring of Egyptian soccer FIFA essentially tolerated the fact that the vast majority of Egyptian premier league clubs fail to meet the soccer body’s criteria for league membership. These criteria include that an owner can only have one club in the league – several Egyptian premier league teams are military owned --; must have its own stadium – virtually no club does and if it does as in the case of Wadi Degla was not allowed by the security services to use it; and should be financially self-sufficient – few Egyptian clubs are.
If Port Said is setting the stage for a reordering of Egyptian soccer, it is also reinforcing emerging fault lines in a country that is protest weary, retains confidence in the military despite its brutality, is frustrated with the lack of immediate economic benefit from the revolt and yearns for normalcy so that Egypt can return to economic growth.
The public mood increasingly meant that the ultras, revered for their fearlessness and contribution to the ousting of Mr. Mubarak, were growing isolated with the public opting for electoral politics and turning its back on contentious street politics. Port Said brought the ultras out of their isolation with thousands of Egyptians in recent days joining their efforts to seek retribution by attacking the interior ministry.
It also sparked counter demonstrations. “Those who love Egypt should not destroy it” and "Police or people…we are all Egyptians," demonstrators chanted demanding a ceasefire between the ultras and the security forces. Residents on Cairo’s Mansour and Mohammed Mahmoud streets, the scene of the battles, complain barricades erected by the security forces and the clashes were disrupting daily life in their neighborhood.
Various groups including relatives of Port Said casualties, members of parliament and the imam of Tahrir Square’s Omar Markram mosque, Mazhar Shahin have been seeking to negotiate a ceasefire. Ahmad Maher, a leader of the April 6 movement that played a key role in the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, suffered a fractured skull and concussion when he was hit by a rock while trying to negotiate a truce.
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.