Ahly fans seek to escape violence in Port Said (Source: Reuters)
By James M. Dorsey
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA), acting on instructions of the interior ministry, has cancelled the rest of this season's league matches in the wake of rioting at a match last month that killed 74 people and injured hundreds of others in a move that is apparently designed to further isolate militant soccer fans and fails to hold the police and security forces to their responsibility to maintain law and order.
The league has been suspended since February 1, the day that 74 people, mostly militant soccer fans of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC, were killed in Port Said immediately after a clash with supporters of the Suez Canal town’s Al Masri SC in the worst incident in Egypt’s sporting history, the most lethal since last year’s overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak, and the deadliest soccer incident worldwide since 1996.
Many believe that the incident in which security forces failed to intervene was an attempt to punish the Ahly fans and send a message to other groups of ultras – well-organized, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fan groups modeled on similar organizations in Serbia and Italy – for their key role in last year’s toppling of Mr. Mubarak and opposition since to Egypt’s military rulers. It came as registration started for candidates for Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election in May.
EFA spokesman Azmy Megahed said the season would not resume because there was not enough time to play the league games before the national team begins training for the 2013 African Cup qualifiers and this year's London Olympics.
Mr. Megahed said that 18 teams, divided into two groups, would compete in a friendly Martyrs Cup tournament in empty stadiums later this month intended to raise money for families of those killed in the Port Said violence and to appease sponsors. He said Al Masri would not be participating in the cup.
“This tournament is aimed at lessening the effects of the league’s cancellation on the clubs and sponsors. Some clubs initially objected to the proposal to cancel the league but they eventually accepted it after the interior ministry said it would not secure the matches,” Mr. Megahed told Al Ahram newspaper.
The EFA, whose board was dismissed after the Port Said incident, is expected to announce within days how it will penalize Al Masri for the violence. Prominent soccer figures have called for the relegation of the team to a lower division.
The decision ends weeks of debate on whether the league should be resumed. Various clubs as well as media organizations campaigned for resumption of the league because they feared the financial consequences of a suspension. Egyptian soccer clubs have suffered significant financial losses as a result of last year’s suspension for three months in the walk-up and aftermath of Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow and repeated orders to play matches behind closed doors as a result of clashes between the ultras and security forces.
Al Ahly, one of Africa’s most crowned clubs which traces its roots to opposition to the government to when it was founded more than a century ago as a meeting place of opponents of the British colonial administration and the monarchy, favored cancellation of the league. A number of Al-Ahly players, including Mohamed Abou Treika, Mohamed Barakat, Ahmed Fathi and Emad Mete'b, said they would not play matches because of low morale and because no one had yet been brought to justice for the bloodshed in Port Said.
Egypt's lawmakers are investigating who was behind the deadly violence. Preliminary results blamed fans and lax security for the incident and suggested that unidentified thugs had been involved in the violence, fueling reports that the violence had been planned rather than spontaneous.
Senior interior ministry officials said last week that those suspected of responsibility for the Port Said violence, including security officials, would be formally charged within days. Authorities have so far detained 54 people on suspicion of complicity.
The EFA decision may have been the soccer body’s only option but raises significant
questions. It highlights the deteriorating security in the Arab world's most populous country as instability continues nearly a year after Mr. Mubarak was swept out of power in a popular uprising.
The lack of security is fueled by the reluctance of the police and security forces to enforce law and order in a bid to change the image of law enforcement agencies, which are widely perceived as henchmen of the Mubarak regime. As a result, the police over the past year have been more interested in avoiding clashes with groups that played key roles in the overthrow of the president, including the incident in Port Said, than in carrying out their duties in the belief that this would help them reposition themselves and that insecurity would emphasize the need for a police force to prevent the country from drifting into chaos and anarchy.
The league suspension spotlights the military rulers’ failure to reform the police and security forces and ensure that they carry out their responsibility to ensure law and order. Some in Egypt believe that the suspension in a soccer-crazy country is also designed to further isolate the ultras and youth groups that were at the core of the popular uprising that toppled Mr. Mubarak. The groups have lost popularity in recent months in a country that has become protest weary and yearns for a return to normalcy and economic growth. Anti-government protests and violent clashes with security forces stand in the way of focusing on the economy.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer