By James M. Dorsey
Egyptian football is adding salt to the run-up to presidential elections that are certain to be won by the country’s strongman, newly retired general Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, with the announcement of the controversial chairman of one of Egypt’s foremost clubs that he too was a presidential candidate.
An outspoken lawyer known for his theatrics, Mortada Mansour, chairman of storied Cairo football club Al-Zamalek SC, announced his candidacy for the Egyptian presidency barely a week after he was elected for a third term as head of a sport institution, whose supporters played a key role in mass protests in the last three years that forced two presidents, Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, out of office.
Mr Mansour’s re-election alongside that of Taher Mahmoud as chairman of Al-Zamalek arch rival Al-Ahly SC has been called into question by FIFA, which suspects interference by a government that since the military coup last July against Mr Morsi, Egypt’s only democratically elected president, has sought to brutally squash any opposition.
Messrs Mansour and Mahmoud were elected in polling ordered by newly appointed Youth and Sports Minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz despite the fact that a new sports law is about to be issued. Both Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek have charged that the elections violated FIFA statutes and should have been postponed. Mr Abdel Aziz’s predecessor, Taher Abou Zeid twice, in the last nine months sought to replace the management of Al-Zamalek and Al-Ahly, Africa’s two top performing clubs.
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) caught between the government and FIFA has unsuccessfully sought to evade taking a stand on the legality of the elections.
In a letter late last month to the EFA, FIFA expressed “deep concern about the fact that the Egyptian Football Association did not implement the statutes and did not react to the interference from the authorities and to different correspondences sent by FIFA in this regard. The committee deemed that the absence of answers and/or the very late replies should not be tolerated anymore and it is therefore anticipated that EFA will show due diligence in the future.”
It was not immediately clear why Mr Mansour decided to enter a presidential race in which only one other candidate, Nasserite Hamdeen Sabahy, has so far been willing to challenge Mr Al-Sisi who has cloaked himself in a mantle of nationalism and popularism and a military-backed vow to root out terrorism increasingly defined as any form of support for Mr Morsi’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or opposition to military-backed rule. Mr Mansour’s initial election promises appeared to differ little from those of Mr Al-Sisi and were certain to be opposed by his club’s militant fans.
“I do not need Egypt’s top office. I only want to fulfil the needs of the Egyptians,” Mr Mansour told Turkey’s Anadolou Agency. He said his election programme would be based on the “respect of law”. In a statement that is likely to put him at odds with militants in Al-Zamalek’s fan base, he vowed to ban protests for a year “in order to give a chance for the economy and tourism to recover”.
Zamalek fans, who in recent years have fought vicious street battles with security forces in which scores were killed and thousands injured, greeted Mr Mansour’s candidacy on social media with ridicule. Mr Mansour was twice fired by the sports ministry during his nine-year tenure because of his theatrics that included a fist fight with his erstwhile deputy and lifting his shoe in an insulting gesture during an Egypt Cup final against arch-rival Al-Ahly.
The fans have long demanded Mr Mansour’s departure, accusing him of corruption and mismanagement. The fans, who repeatedly attacked the club’s headquarters in a bid to force Mr Mansour to resign, fear that he will dismiss the team’s recently appointed coach, former Egyptian international Ahmad Hossam “Mido”, who like the supporters opposed Mr Mansour’s candidacy.
“I have a message for Mido: please stay away from politics and do not discuss any matters that are not related to football,” Mr Mansour said in an interview with Egyptian satellite channel CBC immediately after his re-election as Al-Zamalek chairman.
Mido, like most Egyptian players, refused to join the mass protests in 2011 on Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled Mr Mubarak, but denied that he opposed the popular revolt in which street battled-hardened fans of Al-Zamalek and Al-Ahly were crucial to fortifying protesters’ resolve.
“I appeared only once on TV and I asked the politicians to listen to the protesters, and in an interview with [state-owned newspaper] Al-Ahram, I literally demanded former president Mubarak to retire. I didn’t go to Tahrir Square because I didn’t want anyone to claim that I was a key factor in the revolution’s success because the champions are all who protested from the first day for the sake of Egypt,” Mido said at the time.
Mido was disciplined some two years later while playing for England’s Barnsley FC for participating in an anti-Israel protest during which he tweeted: “In London against Israel… Oh Lord burn them.”
Mido’s anti-Israel stance endeared him to fans who define support for the Palestinians as part of their ethos at a time that relations between players and fans were strained because of the militants’ continued protests that forced length suspensions of league matches and prompted security forces to ban spectators from matches that were played.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also 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.