Egyptian military uses soccer ban to undermine ultras

Port Said continues to haunt the military and soccer

By James M. Dorsey

Egypt’s military rulers are employing a security-inspired sustained ban on professional soccer as a tool to undermine radical, highly-politicized and street battle-hardened soccer fans who have emerged as the North African country’s most militant opponents of the armed force’s grip on politics.

The military’s effort to sideline soccer as a national past time is in stark contrast to ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s use of the game to enhance his image and distract public attention from politics. If soccer overshadowed politics under Mr. Mubarak, politics dwarfs soccer under his successors.

So far the military supported by the interior ministry appears to be succeeding in its goal of isolating militant soccer fan groups. It is however a strategy that could backfire. For one, public focus on politics means closer scrutiny of public officials and enhanced pressure on both the military and Egypt’s newly elected president, Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi, to perform in terms of rebuilding Egypt’s economy and moving the country further down the road towards democracy.

The military, the interior ministry, soccer officials and militant soccer fans have in recent days been locked into a complex dance focused on the authorities’ refusal to lift a five month ban on professional soccer and the aftermath of the death of 74 fans in February in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. It is a dance that in coming days could erupt into renewed street violence in what the security forces would hope is the final showdown and militants would seek to turn into a second revolution that forces the soldiers to return to their barracks.

The hardening of positions on both sides of the divide comes as Mr. Morsi despite having won Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election with 52 per cent of the vote finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Egypt's military, which succeeded Mr. Mubarak with a mandate to guide the country towards free and fair elections effectively pre-empted the Brotherhood victory by giving itself broad legislative and executive authority on the eve of the election. The move has left Mr. Mors primarily dependent on public support in his tug of war with the military.

The interior ministry’s refusal to lift the ban on soccer imposed in the wake of the Port Said incident as long as enhanced security, including electronic gates, airport-style scanners and security cameras have not been installed in Egyptian stadiums is not unreasonable.

Yet, it ignores the fact that security forces stood aside during the brawl in Port Said in what was widely believed to be an effort that got out of hand to teach a lesson to the militant soccer fans for their continued opposition to the military. It also fails to take account of the fact that the military has refrained from reforming the interior ministry and its security forces who are Egypt’s most distrusted institutions because of their role as enforcers of the repressive Mubarak regime.

The military’s exploitation of increased post-Mubarak public focus on politics at the expense of soccer is aided by the poor performance of Egypt’s national team in recent African tournaments. Egypt last month failed to qualify for the Africa Cup finals in a crucial match against the Central African Republic just as Mr. Morsi was being sworn in as his country’s first democratically elected leader.

Media focus on Mr. Morsi rather than the soccer match was in stark contrast to an incident in 2006 when the Mubarak regime successfully focused the media on Egyptian soccer rather than on the sinking of a ferry in which 1,100 people died. Public sentiment at the time blamed government corruption for their deaths.

“The balance is being reset,” Egypt Independent quoted American University of Cairo political scientist Emad Shahin as saying.

In fact, the role of militant soccer fans in the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak and the vicious street battles with security forces in which hundreds were killed and thousands wounded since his downfall that culminated in the Port Said incident have transformed soccer from a debate about sports to one about politics.

That was reinforced by the government’s firing of the Mubarak era board of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) in the wake of Port Said. Three competing lists – members of the Mubarak-era board, Islamist players and independent reformers – are campaigning for the EFA’s elections scheduled for late August.

“This was the first time in the history of Egyptian football that victims have fallen after a football match. This match has fanned the flames of conflict between revolutionaries and the SCAF,” the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said Ayman Abou Ayed, head of state-owned Al Ahram newspaper’s sports department.

Public empathy for the militant soccer fans was already diminishing by the time Port Said happened. Many Egyptians have become protest weary and yearn for stability that would allow their country to return to a path of economic growth.  Mr. Ayed argues that the violence coupled with the suspension of the premier league and the banning of spectators from international matches reduced public interest in what had been a national passion.

The hardening of positions and the potential for renewed violence became evident earlier this week when a group of militant supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC whose members died in the Port Said incident were attacked by unidentified men armed with shotguns, glass shards and rocks as they marched from their club’s headquarters to the Journalists’ Syndicate.

Militant supporters of Al Ahly arch rival Al Zamalek said days before the attack that they had suggested ways to reduce violence in the stadiums but had received no response from the authorities. In a statement, the militants warned that their approach towards upcoming matches would be determined by how the interior ministry justified its continued ban on spectators attending games. Zamalek and Al Ahly, whose derbies prior to Mr. Mubarak’s downfall were ranked among the world’s most violent, are scheduled to clash on Sunday in Cairo in an African club championship match.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer


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