In the firing line: Al Ahly chairman Hassan Hamdy
By James M. Dorsey
A campaign by militant Egyptian soccer fans to root out corruption gathered steam this week with the slapping of a travel ban on and the freezing of assets of the chairman of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC by the country’s Illicit Gains Authority (IGA).
Hassan Hamdy, who until recently doubled as head of the lucrative advertising department of the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper, for decades one of Egypt’s most influential media organizations, is the third official this month suspected of corruption and targeted by the militants to be called to account.
The fans, Egypt’s second largest civic group, last week scored a political with a decision by associates of ousted president Hosni Mubarak to withdraw from elections for the board of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA). The decision by world soccer body FIFA executive committee member Hani Abou-Reida and former Al Ahly goalkeeper Ahmed Shobeir to withdraw came in response to a campaign by Ultras Ahlawy, the club’s militant fan group, demanding they be disqualified.
In the last month, Ultras Ahlawy – one of several highly politicised, well-organized, street battle-hardened fan groups – attacked the club’s training ground, the EFA’s headquarters and media organizations to push for a clean-up of Egyptian soccer and media, whom they accuse of corruption and fanning the flames of confrontation.
They also demanded reform of the powerful security forces; depriving the interior ministry’s police and security’s forces -- the country’s most despised institution widely viewed as the brutal enforcers of repression under Mr. Mubarak – of responsibility for security in the stadiums; and the resignation of the EFA and Al Ahly boards.
The militant’s success is likely to boost their resolve to thwart this month’s resumption of professional soccer matches that have been suspended since February when 74 Al Ahly supporters were killed in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. The ultras, who played a key role in last year’s overthrow of Mr. Mubarak and in subsequent street battles to ensure achievement of the revolt’s goals, reject a resumption of soccer as long as justice has not been served to those responsible for the Port Said incident.
The ultras succeeded last month in getting the resumption of soccer postponed a month until October 17. Authorities had initially planned to lift the eight-month old suspension on September 17.
With many in Egypt convinced that the Port Said brawl was instigated in a bid to teach the militants a lesson and cut them down to size, the militants have demanded that those in high positions responsible for the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history be called to account. Nine mid-level security officers are among 74 people standing trial for their role in the brawl in a slow-moving legal process.
Ultras were on Tuesday among thousands of Egyptians who demonstrated to commemorate the anniversary of the Maspero killing last year of 27 Coptic Christians in clashes with the military. Ultras carried banners with pictures of former Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his deputy Lieutenant General Sami Anan with ropes around their necks. "The people want the execution of the Field Marshall," the protesters chanted.
Mr. Tantawi ruled Egypt from the fall of Mr. Mubarak in February of last year until the election in July of Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi as the country’s first free and fairly elected president. Mr. Morsi was swift after taking office to remove Mr. Tantawi from power.
The ultras emerged after the toppling of Mr. Mubarak as the country’s most militant opponents to military rule. They believe that the military was at least tacitly complicit in the Port Said incident.
Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that Mr. Hamdy was released on Tuesday on a bail of two million Egyptian pounds (USD 330,000) after being questioned by the IGA about the accumulation of his wealth estimated at 500 million pounds (USD 82 million). MENA said Mr. Hamdy had been unable to provide an explanation and had been banned from travel abroad. He also had his assets frozen.
Mr. Hamdy has for the past decade been the chairman of Al Ahly which is Egypt and Africa’s most crowned club with a fan base estimated at 50 million. The club has won Egypt’s championship 34 and the African cup six times. The Ultras Ahlawy Facebook page has more than 570,000 followers.
The ultras have denounced Mr. Hamdy as a "part of the dismantled regime" of Mr. Mubarak, accused him of fraud and charge that he failed to exert sufficient pressure on authorities to hold to account those responsible for the Port Said incident.
"We said before that Hamdy should leave because he conspired with the Egyptian Football Association over the Port Said case. And now that things have become clear for many people, we will not allow Hamdy to tarnish the image of our club. You have run out of credit, you have no option but to depart," Ultras Ahlawy said in a statement on their Facebook page.
Mr. Hamdy is believed to have been under investigation of corruption since last year as a result of his apparent conflict of interest in being head of the advertisement department of al Ahram as well as chairman of Egypt’s most prominent soccer club and until last year chair of the EFA’s sponsorship committee at the same time.
Military police last year were reported to have seized three boxes of documents that Mr. Hamdy and then Al Ahram editor-in-chief Osama Saraya had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor’s office when they were confronted by publishing house employees who suspected that the boxes contained documents that would prove the two men’s involvement in corruption.
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.