By James M. Dorsey
The battle for Egypt’s future was set to spill once again into the streets of Cairo following two days of battles between militant supporters of the embattled Al Masri SC soccer club of Port Said that sparked the closure of the city’s harbour and left one teenager dead and more than 100 people wounded.
The riots in Port Said coupled with plans for protests on Sunday by militant fans of crowned Cairo club AL Ahly SC in front of the headquarters of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and an Al Ahly board meeting scheduled for Monday were prompted by the EFA’s controversial meting out of penalties for last month’s lethal clash between supporters of the two teams that left 74 people dead.
Al Ahly spokesman Gamal Gabr denounced the EFA ruling as “an invitation for more violence. We are back to square one…Ahli fans will never accept such a weak verdict from a powerless association,” he said in an interview on soccer channel Modern Korba TV.
The EFA on Friday banned Al Masri for two seasons from playing in Egypt’s premier league and closed the city’s stadium for three years. The soccer body also ordered Al Ahly to play four matches behind closed doors and suspended the club’s Portuguese coach Manuel Jose as well as midfielder Hossam Ghaly for an equal number of games in a decision that in close coordination with Egypt’s military rulers failed to address the underlying causes of the soccer violence and satisfied no one.
The ruling conformed to an earlier comment by Egyptian prime minister Kamal El-Ganzouri who after a meeting with senior soccer and security officials called in violation of world soccer body FIFA’s ban on political interference in soccer on the EFA to ensure that its punitive measures would “neither be lenient nor excessive.”
The government’s concern about the political fallout of the Port Said incident was already evident when it last month against the will of FIFA fired the board of the EFA that had been appointed under ousted president Hosni Mubarak. FIFA is expected to discuss the issue at an executive committee meeting in Zurich later this week.
Adding insult to injury, Mr. Ganzouri acknowledged that the EFA had awarded Al Masri “the minimum penalty,” adding that the club had the right to appeal the verdict.
The government’s approach as well as the EFA ruling reflect a refusal to address the deep-seated animosity between security forces and militant soccer fans stemming from years of almost weekly clashes in Egyptian stadiums as well as the growing frustration among youth groups and soccer fans who were at the core of last year’s popular revolt that they are being marginalized while the aims of their uprising are being shunted aside in favour of vested interests.
“The old (Mubarak) regime was very sceptic of everything organized. They tried to control the unions, they tried to control the student unions in the universities and they tried to control the political life. Suddenly they found in front of them a bunch of young people organizing themselves in football. That’s why we had so many problems.
They just weren’t happy with the fact that you have 20, 25 guys who have gathered 500 people in two hours. For them, now they are speaking about football, tomorrow they will be speaking about politics and funny enough, for us, we had no political intention at any moment. They made of us what they were afraid, repressing us when they started like fighting us, people started to hate them because we were fighting for our freedom, for what we believe we had the right to achieve and the right to establish,” Assad, one of the founders of the Ultras Ahlawy, the militant Al Ahly support group, told the BBC.
Supporters of Al Masri and Al Ahly alongside a growing number of soccer officials and ordinary Egyptians are convinced that last month’s lethal clash between the two rivals after a match in Port Said was provoked by the military and security forces in a bid to punish the ultras – well-organized, highly-politicized, violence-prone, street battle-hardened soccer fans groups modelled on similar organizations in Italy and Serbia – for their militant opposition to military rule since last year’s ousting of Mr. Mubarak. The belief is fuelled by circumstantial evidence.
The ultras, who last year played a key role in the mass anti-government protests that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office, have since emerged in repeated vicious street battles with security forces as the fiercest opponents of the military who succeeded the toppled leader with a pledge to lead the country to democracy.
The preliminary results of a parliamentary investigation into the Port Said incident appeared to bear out some of the evidence that the violence had been planned by registering the involvement of unidentified thugs and lax security while also blaming the fans. Egypt’s attorney general recently charged 75 people, including nine security officials, in connection with the incident. Al Ahly fans noted that the security personnel appeared to be getting off lightly with charges of negligence while Al Masri supporters were largely accused of murder.
“When you come here…you get a real sense of how football is part of all of this… You realize how football and politics are totally connected… It’s clear that this was not a case of typical fan violence. There are camera reports that the gates are welded shut and one of the first things that you see with what’s going on on the field, police are doing nothing.
When I ask opinions of different people, I do get opinions from people who say that the military in their own way in some moments are almost trying to say: fine, you want us out, well then this is what it’s going to be like without us…. When you start piecing all this together, as everybody knows now, this not just violence. This was much more complicated,” said Egypt’s American national coach Bob Bradley in a BBC interview.
Speaking in a separate BBC interview, a fan of Al Ahly which traces its history as an opposition force to its founding more than a century ago as a meeting point for opponents of British colonial rule, vividly described scenes during the clash in Port Said stadium that fuel the belief that the lethal violence was not spontaneous.
“After the final whistle the fans started to storm the grounds…We were so surprised that the gates were locked, so we find ourselves like say 800 people all stuck inside this tunnel, 60 square meters. We started to fall down on each other, there were like five levels of people all on each other…All you could see was half of a human. You could see just the upper part, you could see the head and the body is buried under other bodies. You could see the hand, just one hand of our friends, just trying to say help or something.
The cops didn’t do anything, they were just watching. The army were guarding this gate and they were just watching. They were just killing us… It wasn’t just about killing, it was about humiliating. When you see someone with two broken legs and stabbed in the face just like that and stabbed in his stomach, you’re not just killing, your humiliating before killing,” the fan identified as Bima said.
Supporters of Al Masri and Port Said residents feel that their team and city was set up and is being subjected to collective punishment for a battle that is not theirs. “We need to know who is provoking the rift between Port Said and Cairo,” demanded a protester in the Suez Canal city after its port was closed and ships were diverted further east.
In a statement on their Facebook page, Al Masri ultras known as the Green Eagles denied that they had participated in the slaughter of mostly Al Ahly fans. “Congratulations to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, they succeeded in driving a wedge between the two cities. They are now watching the play they wrote…Something suspicious is happening in the Suez Canal… We withdrew once we saw suspicious things happening (in the stadium),” the statement said.
Representatives of Port Said in parliament echoed the ultras’ sentiment in a joint statement with some blaming Al Ahly for provoking the incident. “We call on Egypt’s intellectuals and faithful media personnel to stand up against the tendentious campaign to drive a wedge between the residents of Port Said and Cairo and completely isolate Port Said. We fully respect Ahly’s board of directors and fans ... there will never be any hard feelings between Port Said and Ahly. The Port Said residents are leading calls for the punishment of the culprits. However, they fully reject any attempts to wipe out the name of Masry from Egyptian football. Accordingly, we will not accept any excessive sanctions that will be considered as a collective punishment for the city and the club,” the deputies said in their statement.
In separate remarks Port Said deputy Akram El-Shaer said Ahly fans had incited the violence with a banner that mocked Port Said, his colleague El-Badry Farghaly warned that he expose “the corruption of Ahly’s board of directors and their chairman, Hassan Hamdy”.
Mr. Hamdy attracted attention last year for an alleged conflict of interest in heading Al Ahly while at the same time occupying the posts of director of advertisement at Al Alhram, the most important state-owned print publication under Mr. Mubarak, and chair of the EFA’s sponsorship committee. Military police were last year to have seized documents that Mr. Hamdy and then Al Ahram editor-in-chief Osama Saraya had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor's office. Prosecutors were investigating the documents to verify employees' suspicion that they contained evidence of corruption.
In a further blow to the city, Port Said’s port was shut down Saturday after stone-throwing protesters clashed with police near the Suez Canal Authority building and demonstrators forced the closure of factories by blocking roads leading into the city. A 13-year old was killed and at least 100 people wounded in the clashes.
While Al Masri supporters have taken to the streets to protest what they see as their club and city being scapegoated, Al Ahly is preparing to take the EFA, the security forces and the military to task for what it sees as a far too lenient treatment of the Suez Canal city’s club and the security forces.
Ultras Ahlawy, warned in a statement that their patience with the government and the EFA meting out justice was running out and said they would start a sit-in in front of the EFA headquarters on Sunday. “If our silence led some people to think that we are weak … then the following words are directed to them. From now on, we will be out of our mind. You can call us thugs, you can call us crazy, but we will be crazy to regain our rights, either through legal avenues or with our bare hands. We are ready to die for our rights; we are ready to add to the toll of 74 deaths,” the group said.
It demanded a swift trial for the Port said culprits, the relegation and suspension of sports activities of Al Masri for a period of three years, and resumption of the premier league once the rights of the victims of the clash had been secured.
Al Ahly’s board said it would meet on Monday in emergency session “to discuss the EFA’s decisions and take the appropriate measures which would preserve the rights of the club and their fans”.
Club chairman Mahmoud Allam warned that “there will be some surprises on Monday. We will take a stance against those sanctions which satisfy nobody. We expected far tougher punishments after the suffering of our fans. The decisions which will be taken by the board of directors will show how much we care about our supporters.”
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.