By James M. Dorsey
A staunch supporter of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, has called on the government to allow soccer fans, a pillar of anti-government protest, back into stadia that have largely been closed to the public for nearly five years.
Mr. Sawiri’s request on the eve of two African Confederation Cup semi-finals in Cairo in which Egypt’s storied clubs Al Ahli SC will square off with South Africa’s Orlando Pirates while Zamalek SC plays its return game against Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel, followed several recent incidents in which fans either forced their way into an Egyptian stadium or used away matches of Egyptian clubs to stage anti-government protests.
It also came after Mr. Sawiris acquired the Egyptian Premier League’s broadcast rights which he has since sold to two of Egypt’s television channels, TEN and Al-Hayat.
"The absence of football fans is a failure for Egypt and the interior and youth ministries. People are bored with politics now, but they never bore of football. Fans must attend matches again, but without new incidents. Matches are boring without fans. We will have a meeting with interior ministry officials and groups of ultras,” Mr. Sawiris told a news conference.
Mr. Sawiris was referring to militant soccer fan groups that played a key role in the 2011 toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and have been the backbone of student and neighbourhood protests against Mr. Al-Sisi in the two years since he staged his 2013 military coup against Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.
Egyptian stadia have largely been closed since the mass protests against Mr. Mubarak erupted in January 2011 in a bid to ensure that they would not serve as platforms and gathering points for opposition forces.
Stadia were reopened months after the revolt but closed in February 2012 following a politically-loaded brawl in Port Said in which 74 Ahli supporters died. Another effort to open stadia was stymied when in February of this year 20 fans were killed in clashes with security forces as they sought to force their way into a Cairo stadium to which a limited number of spectators had been granted entry.
The Egyptian interior ministry, in a potential signal that the country’s military-backed regime recognized that its choking off of all public space could backfire, initially agreed last month to allow fans to attend international matches played by the national team and Egyptian clubs. The move was also intended to shield the government from being blamed for potentially bad performances – a politically sensitive issue in soccer-crazy Egypt.
The interior ministry however this week reversed its decision, saying that fans would not be allowed to attend the Al Ahli match against the Orlando Pirates. The decision followed the flashing by fans last week in Johannesburg during a first match between the two clubs of the four-fingered Raba’a sign by Ahli fans. Raba’a is a square in Cairo where hundreds of protesters, primarily members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, were killed by security forces weeks after Mr. Al-Sisi’s toppling of Mr. Morsi, a leader of the Brotherhood.
It also followed the firing of flares during a match in Tunisia by fans of Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek SC and after Ahli fans forced their way into an Egyptian stadium where their club was playing an African game against a Malian team.
In a letter to the interior ministry, Al Ahli asked the ministry earlier this week to reverse its ban on spectator attendance of the match against the South Africans. “We have proposed to security authorities all solutions possible to allow the fans to attend, especially considering the game is critical for the team to defend its African title. We left it up to the Interior Ministry to decide on the suitable number of fans,” Al Ahli general director, Mahmoud Allam, was quoted by Al-Masry Al-You as saying.
Repeated talks between the interior ministry that administers Egypt’s security forces with whom ultras have regularly clashed during the past eight years, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), and clubs on a re-opening of stadia have faltered on disagreement on how security should be organized and who should shoulder the bill. Clubs have sustained substantial financial losses as a result of the stadium closure.
Mr. Sawiris implicitly criticized the government for its hard line towards the ultras by noting that the ultras lacked leaders and urging the interior ministry to meet with the militant fans. Many of the ultras’ leaders are either in prison on charges or convictions for violating Egypt’s draconic anti-protest law or have gone into hiding to evade detention or because they were convicted in absentia to sentences ranging from short term prison terms to life in prison or death.
Mr. Sawiris with his call for a dialogue with the ultras can point to the fact that militant Ahli fans voluntarily left a stadium in November of last year that they had occupied hours before their club was scheduled to play an African championship. The incident was a rare example in which Egyptian security forces agreed to a negotiated, peaceful resolution rather than a hard-handed crackdown.
In the deal, negotiated by Al Ahli’s management the fans agreed to leave the stadium in exchange for being allowed to attend the match, being treated with respect rather than humiliated at security checks, and promising not to disrupt the match. Al Ahli won the championship in a match that proceeded without incident.
Al Ahli’s approach towards its militant fans has contrasted sharply with that of Zamalek whose president, Mortada Mansour, has relished the death of his club’s supporters in February, accused them of trying to assassinate him, and sought to persuade the courts to outlaw ultras as terrorists.
Militant fans have long been demanding a lifting of the spectator ban. Thousands of hard-core supporters of Al Ahli and Al Zamalek have attended their clubs’ training sessions in recent months to demonstrate that it was not them but the security forces that were responsible for repeated violent incidents.
Efforts to repress the ultras and several failed legal attempts to ban them as terrorist organizations have left fans and youth frustrated at a lack of social and economic prospects with few options to either resign themselves to apathy or risk radicalization. “There is nowhere to go and no breathing space left. You either turn apathetic or you decide that you’ve got nothing to lose,” said an ultra.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.