By James M. Dorsey
Political differences between Egyptian soccer players and fans are spilling on to the street of Cairo as Egypt seeks to fend off possible suspension by world soccer body FIFA.
In an escalation of tension with fans, players in Egypt’s premier and second league are gearing up for a demonstration in front of the sports ministry to demand the resumption of professional soccer suspended since a politically loaded brawl in February in which 74 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC were killed.
The demonstration highlights tensions with fans that go beyond vows by militant, highly-politicized, street battle-hardened Al Ahly fans to prevent a resumption of soccer until justice has been served for the death of their comrades in the Port Said brawl.
The brawl, which widely is believed to have been provoked by security forces in a bid to punish the ultras for their key role in the ousting of president Hosni Mubarak and violent opposition to the military that ruled Egypt until the election in July of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in the country’s first democratic poll, sparked the banning of soccer for most of this year.
Frustrated with the slow moving legal proceedings against 74 people, including nine security officials, accused of responsibility for the Port Said incident and the lack of reform of soccer, Al Ahly ultras last month stormed the grounds where the club’s players were training as well as television studios and the headquarters of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA). They demanded a clean-up of Egyptian soccer and media, whom they accuse of corruption and fanning the flames of confrontation, and reform of the security forces.
The ultras further demanded that 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 – be deprived of responsibility for security in the stadiums. They also called for the resignation of the boards of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and Al Ahly as well as the withdrawal of the candidacy of Mubarak era officials, among whom world soccer body FIFA executive committee member Hani Abou-Reida, as candidates in upcoming EFA elections.
Ultras groups across Egypt constitute the country’s second largest, most organized civic group after Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s foremost political grouping.
"We will never let the football come back in Egypt unless the field is clean from corruption," said a leader of the Al Ahly Ultras.
The EFA has said that professional soccer would resume on October 17.
In a statement on Facebook, a newly founded group of players, The Voice of Sportsmen, said that it was “extremely important that football competitions are resumed because this is our job and our sole source of income. We created that page to send our message to authorities and make our voice heard. We also want all Egyptian sportsmen to join us… We would like to fully stress on our support for the rights of retribution for the Port Said martyrs, we want swift justice through the legal channels. But that has nothing to do with football resumption," the statement said.
Many Egyptian second-division players, who are usually poorly paid, have complained that they could ill-afford the consequences of the protracted suspension. Their concern was echoed by players for premier league clubs.
Relations between fans and players have much like Egyptian politics been on a rollercoaster since the fall of Mr. Mubarak. Tensions in the first post-Mubarak year made way for a period of reconciliation in the wake of the Port Said brawl, the worst incident in Egyptian sport history, which prompted three Al Ahly players who also formed part of Egypt’s national squad to retire.
Within days Al Ahly militants, responding to an outpour of sympathy from across Egypt including militants of Zamalek, 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.
Breaking with the tradition of soccer players standing on the side lines of popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, if not supporting autocratic leaders, starred Al; Ahly striker Mohamed Abou-Treika last month boycotted his club’s Super Cup match against ENPPI, Egypt’s first domestic match since the match suspension, in solidarity with the ultras. His decision symbolized the struggles in virtually every Egyptian institution between post-Mubarak reformers and supporters of the Mubarak-era status quo ante.
Fuelling the growing gap between fans and players is what sociologist Ian Taylor described as resistance to and rejection of the upwardly mobile move of players from their working class origins to a middle class with a Peter Stuyvesant-like jet set lifestyle. “The player has been incorporated into the bourgeois world, his self-image and behaviour have become increasingly managerial or entrepreneurial, and soccer has become for the player, a means to personal (rather than sub-cultural) success,” Mr. Taylor wrote in an analysis of British soccer violence that in the Middle East and North is reinforced by the political and psychological divide rooted in the neo-patriarchal nature of Arab autocracies.
The ultras booked a first victory in their latest campaign with the EFA’s decision to disqualify Mr. Abou Reida’s candidacy in election scheduled for this month for the soccer body’s presidency.
Egyptian media reports quoting EFA spokesman Azmi Megahed said that FIFA had threatened to suspend the soccer body if it were proven that Mr. Abou-reida was disqualified as a result of government interference. FIFA has reportedly denied issuing such a threat.
Mr. Abou-Reida, a member of Mr. Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party, was suspended on the basis of a court ruling that he had already served as an EFA official for two consecutive terms and could only run again in four years’ time.
Mr. Abou-Reida is challenging the decision and has denied allegations by the ultras that he played a role in a decision by the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sport that overturned an EFA ban on his hometown club, Al Masry SC, for two years because of the Port Said incident which occurred during a match against Al Ahly in its stadium.
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.