By James M. Dorsey
Egyptian authorities have expanded the ban on fans attending matches to include international as well as domestic matches in a bid to prevent violence that is likely to backfire and spark renewed incidents in a country reeling from economic decline, widespread discontent and lack of confidence in the government and law enforcement.
Sports minister Al-Emary Farouq announced the ban from international matches following incidents in African championship games involving crowned Cairo clubs Al Ahly and Al Zamalek SC as well as Ismaili SC.
The ban is certain to upset militant, highly politicised, street battle-hardened fans or ultras divided over verdicts announced in January and last month in the trial against those responsible for the death last year of 74 Al Ahly fans in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, and opposed to the already existing barring of supporters from recently restarted domestic matches.
The fans are further upset that their demands have yet to be met for reform of the country’s security sector as well as the putting on trial of law enforcement officials involved in the killing of more than 900 people in the last two years since the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt’s Premier League was recently relaunched in the absence of fans after a suspension of a year in the wake of the Port Said incident that is widely viewed as an attempt that got out of hand by authorities to teach the Ultras a lesson for their key role in Egypt’s popular revolt, sustained opposition to the military rulers who succeeded Mr Mubarak and led the country to its first free and fair elections, and the growing perception that President Mohammed Morsi is more of an autocrat than a reformer.
The sentencing to death in January of 21 fans of Port Said’s Al Masry SC for their role in the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history sparked an uprising in the city that has long felt neglected and disadvantaged by central governments in Cairo. Al Masry and Al Ahly fans agree however that the police and security forces were spared with the sentencing of only two of the nine officers that had been charged in the case, the first two security officials to have been accountable for the deaths of protesters since Mr Mubarak’s downfall.
The ban against the backdrop of political volatility in which the ultras play a prominent role complicates a tough choice facing the militant fan groups as well as youth organisations who formed the backbone of Egypt’s popular uprising: at what point do they surrender the power of the street and contentious politics and transition into electoral politics and non-governmental lobbying and activism?
For now, the ban coupled with mounting resistance to Mr Morsi because of his reliance on security forces and the military rather than outreach to his critics, his haughty style of government, a crackdown that last week culminated in the arrest and subsequent release on bail of the Arab world’s most prominent political satirist, a series of measures that curtail rather than enhance the role of civic society, and his unilateral rushing through of a controversial constitution that many see as serving an Islamist agenda has postponed the need to take a decision.
Mr Farouq, a former Ahly board member, justified the banning of fans from international matches saying that the recent incidents “put the safety of fans at risk and damaged public property” and was necessary “to protect sports facilities”.
Zamalek fans earlier this month destroyed seats at the military-owned Borg El-Arab Stadium in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Ismaili supporters invaded the pitch and fought with police after a match against Algeria’s USMA, and Ahly fans threw projectiles and damaged the stadium during a game against a Kenyan club.
The ban is in line with Mr Morsi’s refusal to see the uprising in Port Said, street protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities and the role of the Ultras as a consequence of a government policy that has allowed the economy to slide to the point of Egypt teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, a deep-seated distrust of security forces because of their role as executors of the Mubarak-era repression and their continued brutality and that appears more intent on consolidating the power of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood than leading the transition from autocracy to a more open and free society.
The ban leaves the Ultras with the street as their only potential stronghold in an environment in which reform seems as elusive as it appeared before soccer fans and youth groups discovered their real power on January 25, 2011, the first of 18 days of protests on Cairo’s Tahrir Square that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. That is a stronghold protesters are unlikely to surrender until they see real steps towards change, starting with the tackling of what is a difficult and complex task: reform of the security forces.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.