Ultras demonstrate on Tahrir Square (Credit: Associated Press)
By James M. Dorsey
Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi has included 72 soccer fans killed last year in a politically loaded soccer brawl among those recognized as martyrs of the revolution that toppled president Hosni Mubarak amd mounting concern of a renewed soccer violence.
In recognizing the dead, Mr. Morsi fulfilled one of the demands supported by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC of militant, highly politicized, violence-prone and street-battled hardened fans who are calling for justice for their slain brethren.
Like a submission earlier this week by Egyptian Prosecutor General Tal’at Abdallah of new evidence in a trial against 73 people accused of responsibility for the brawl a year ago in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, Mr. Morsi’s move is designed to head off protests once the court announces its verdict on January 26. Al Ahli fans fear the new evidence will allow the court to postpone its verdict.
Mr. Morsi’s move entitles the families of the victims who died when violence erupted in February last year at the end of a match between Al Ahli and Al Masri SC. Most of the dead were Al Ahli supporters. It was the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history.
Hundreds of Al Masri supporters gathered this week in front of the Port Said prison to ensure that the detained defendants in the trial, which include officials of the club, would not be transported to Cairo for the verdict. They said they feared for the defendants’ lives. Authorities responded by promising to keep the inmates in Port Said.
That decision was however denounced by Al Ahli supporters who charged that it proved the interior ministry’s complicity in last year’s brawl that is widely seen as an attempt that got out of hand to discipline the militants fans or ultras, who played a key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak, opposition to the subsequent military rulers who led Egypt to elections that were won by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mr. Morsi, and resistance to his recent rushing through of a controversial constitution.
The Al Ahli militants or ultras said in a statement that “everyone will see that the numbers that participated (last Friday) in the (fans’) Tahrir Square march is a very small part of the mobilization.”
They said they were organizing transportation for Al Ahli supporters from across Egypt so that they could gather on Saturday, a day after the second anniversary of the protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak, in front of the Police Academy in Cairo where the court is scheduled to announce its verdict.
The Al Ahli supporters have also in recent days organized multiple open air multi-media presentations to remind Egyptians of last year’s incident.
The protests underline Mr. Morsi’s unsuccessful attempts to woo the ultras, one of Egypt’s largest civic groups after his ruling Brotherhood, since he was campaigning for the presidency last summer.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) on whose ticket Mr. Morsi was elected declared last year its "full support" for the ultras and their "just cause.” The FJP expressed its support noting that "none of those who killed their colleagues (in Port Said) have been punished."
In separate remarks at the same time on Twitter, Khairat El-Shater, widely viewed as the power behind Mr. Morsi’s throne, also came out in favor of the ultras. "Preserving the stature of the state will be achieved when the real perpetrators of the Port Said massacre are brought to justice,” said Mr. El-Shater, who withdrew his candidacy for president in favor of Mr. Morsi after a court barred him from running. The Brotherhood leader further demanded that the editor of the FJP’s newspaper apologize for recently describing the ultras as troublemakers.
Recognizing the Port Said dead as martyrs was only one of the soccer fans’ demands. Ultras Ahlawy, the Cairo club’s militant fan group, has vowed to prevent the resumption of professional soccer as long as justice has not been served in the Port Said case.
The ultras have further demanded that professional soccer remain suspended pending justice for the Port Said dead. Soccer in Egypt has been suspended since the incident in the Suez Canal city. They also want the police and security forces, their nemesis and the most despised institutions in Egypt because of their role in enforcing the repression of the Mubarak government, to be exempted from responsibility for security in stadiums; the police and security forces to be thoroughly reformed; Mubarak era officials to be removed from soccer boards and an end to corruption in the sport.
The fans are moreover unhappy with the conditions on which the Egyptian Football Association earlier this month agreed with the ministers of interior and sport to resume professional soccer in February. In particular, the fans reject the exclusion of the public from initial matches at the behest of the interior ministry which is in charge of the police and security forces. The ministry insisted that fans be excluded because it fears that clashes with the militants would further tarnish the image of the police and the security forces.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog