Tunisia Allows Restricted Resumption of Soccer Matches

Tunisian professional soccer matches will resume this week behind closed doors for the first time since mass anti-government protests drove President Zine Abedine Ben Ali in January from power after 23 years in office.

The restricted lifting of the ban, imposed to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point, reflects government fears that soccer fans emboldened by their success alongside thousands of other Tunisians in throwing off the yoke of dictatorship could as yet use the field to press for further political and economic reform.

Demonstrations in Tunisia have continued since the fall of Ben Ali, forcing interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi and several of his Cabinet members to resign.

The lifting of the ban follows last week’s African championship match between Tunisia’s Club Africain and Rwanda’s ARP – the first game to be played in Tunisia since the popular revolt drove Ben Ali into exile.

Club Africain advanced to the championship’s second round by beating ARP 4:0. Its next challenge is storied Cairo club Al Zamalek FC, which is struggling with the winds of change in the wake of last month’s ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a result of mass protests inspired by Tunisia’s success in toppling its dictator.

The match was widely viewed as a litmus test for a resumption of professional soccer.

The decision to exclude spectators from matches contrasts starkly with the fact that 10,000 fans were allowed to attend the African match in the Rades Stadium outside Tunis, which took place without incident.

Nonetheless, it constitutes a step forward compared to Egypt, where professional league matches remain suspended since late January. Egypt’s military rulers, who took control of the government after Mubarak’s departure with a promise to return the country to democracy within six months, have yet to respond to a two-week old request by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to lift the ban.

Like in Tunisia, the military allowed an African championship match in Cairo’s Military Academy Stadium between Zamalek and Kenya’s Ulinzi Stars as a litmus test. The military remains however reluctant to resume professional matches even though the African match in the presence of thousands of spectators was played without incident.

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