Egyptian stadiums: a political battlefield
By James M. Dorsey
Egyptian and international soccer officials and experts are grasping for straws as they seek to address the reasons for the deaths six weeks ago of 74 soccer fans in the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history.
At an international security conference in Qatar, the officials and experts, including Egyptian Footballers' Association president Magdy Abdel Ghani, former English Football Association vice chairman David Dein and International Conference on Sport Security executive director and head of security for the 2006 World Cup in Germany Helmut Spahn blamed the fans, the media, rivalry between clubs and lack of education for last month's lethal clash between rival militant soccer fans in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
Absent from the discussion was the political situation in Egypt that created the environment for the violence, the years of abuse and violence in stadiums that fans endured at the hands of security forces, the quest for dignity expressed in confrontations with security forces by fans emboldened by their success last year in toppling President Hosni Mubarak and their frustration with the fact that the goals of their revolt have been sidelined.
The debate at the International Sport Security Conference in Doha about reducing violence in Egyptian soccer took place as Egypt's chief prosecutor charged 75 people, including nine police officers, with murder or negligence over the Port Said riot in which at least 74 people were killed when rival fans clashed after a game between premier league clubs Al-Masry SC and Al-Ahly SC on 1 February.
Thousands of militant fans of Al Ahly and Cairo rival Al Zamalek SC marched Thursday to the High Court in downtown Cairo to demand justice for the victims of the Port Said disaster. They chanted slogans against Egypt’s military rulers and the interior ministry and carried banners calling for revenge against the killers of their dead comrades.
“We demand specific charges, not just a general accusation for all of them like what happened this morning. We also demand a fair and speedy trial,” said Mohammed Tarek, a spokesman of Ultras Ahlawy, one of several militant, highly politicized, violence-prone, street-battled hardened soccer fan groups or ultras that played a key role in the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak. The ultras have since emerged as the most militant opponents of the military that succeeded Mr. Mubarak.
Mr. Tarek expressed concern that general charges could mean that only a few of the 75 charged would be sentenced and that senior officials may be granted leniency by accusing them of “failing to fulfill their duties, not murder."
In a show of unity, ultras of Al Ahly and its arch rival Al Zamalek SC, respected for their fearlessness and their years of standing up to the security forces, warned Egypt’s military rulers that they were “ready to sacrifice our lives for the sake of our country" and to ensure that the instigators of Port Said were swiftly brought to justice. They also warned that they would resist a crackdown on militant soccer groups.
The ultras’ militancy has forced the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to put on hold plans for a friendly tournament behind closed doors to commemorate the Port Said victims. The tournament was intended to compensate the clubs for the cancellation of this season’s league in the wake of Port Said. The ultras had threatened to storm the pitches of the friendlies if they were played before the perpetrators of Port Said had been brought to justice.
The cancellation of the league came as registration started for candidates for Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election in May.
Some ultras believe that the suspension of the league in soccer-crazy Egypt was designed to further isolate the ultras and youth groups that 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.
The ultras’ protest and the warnings suggest that the indictments like the debate in Doha are unlikely to contribute to pre-empting future violence.
The death of the 74 Al Ahli fans put a tragic crown on years of politically motivated violence in Egyptian stadiums and a year of militant soccer fan opposition to military rule in the wake of the toppling of Mr. Mubarak.
Egyptian Footballers' Association chief Mr. Ghani, speaking on a panel about hooliganism and violence in football at the Doha conference, blamed the Port Said violence on the militants’ use of social media.
“One of the very important facts that caused this anger and rage between fans is the inference of social media. Fans are very young which makes it easier to drive the anger and make them do acts without knowing,” Mr. Ghani said.
He charged that the ultras had planned the Port Said incident. “Before the game some of the ultras talked to each other on Facebook chat. They used the lack of policing and they prepared themselves to do something before the game because the fans of Port Said had no reason to attack the other fans - they won the game,” Mr. Ghani said.
Mr. Ghani’s remarks highlighted the gap between fans and players that has opened since the fall of Mr. Mubarak. The fans have expressed frustration with the fact that the majority of players remained on the side lines during the protests against Mr. Mubarak. To the ultras, players are hired guns willing to switch allegiances for money while management consists largely of corrupt appointees of autocratic regimes.
Al Ahly ultras unfolded a year ago 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." Many reject Egypt’s national team as ‘Mubarak’s team’ rather than that of the nation. Players have since the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak 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.
Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Zidan in recent controversial remarks put a further spotlight on the gap with the fans as well as the problem Egypt and other post-revolt Arab countries face in the transition from an autocratic to a more open society and the battles being fought on the soccer pitch.
In an interview with satellite channel CBC Egypt, Mr. Zidan, a striker in the Egyptian national team and for Germany’s FSV Mainz 05, focused attention on the neo-patriarchal role of Arab autocrats as their nation’s father figure and the refusal of a majority of soccer players and managers to join the region’s anti-autocratic revolts despite the fact that militant soccer fans of rival clubs stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the mass protests last year against Mr. Mubarak.
“I kissed Mubarak’s hand when he honored Egypt after the 2010 African Cup of Nations as I saw him as a father of all Egyptians,” Mr. Zidan said reflecting the attitude of most soccer players and managers in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Nonetheless, Port Said created an opening for reconciliation between players and fans. In a sign of the changing times, the Al Ahly ultras recently 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 led 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,“ he said.
Some of Mr. Abdul Ghani's co-panelists in Doha seemed even more clueless about the roots of Egyptian soccer violence, comparing it to hooliganism in Europe and calling for stricter law enforcement and better education in a country in which law enforcement agencies are at the root of the problem and ultras rather than hooligans are the product of an autocratic system that closed down all release valves for pent-up anger and frustration but the mosque and the soccer pitch.
Port Said as well as last year's repeated vicious street battles between ultras and security forces are the product of years of abuse and violence against soccer fans by the police and the Central Security Force (CSF).
Port Said was also the result of a refusal by the police in the absence of badly needed reforms and re-education to fulfill its duties. Egypt's deteriorating security situation stems in part from the police being largely absent since Mr. Mubarak's downfall.
Widely viewed as the autocratic former president's enforcers and henchmen, the police have avoided confrontation with the public in a bid to improve their tarnished image. In fact, the police's raison d'etre in the last year was public relations not ensuring law and order. Incidents would only highlight the threat of Egypt descending into anarchy and chaos if the police were not accorded the respect needed to uphold law and order.
Egyptian soccer violence “needs to be looked at because there’s a deep-rooted cause there. You have to look at the policing, the infrastructure, the culture - The English FA and Premier League are there to help. We’ve had it, we have had to deal with it and we’ve come out the other side so we are here to help," said former English Football Association chief Mr. Dein.
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.