Militant, street battle-hardened Egyptian football fans set the stage for growing protests against the government of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi when, earlier this month, they forced their way into a stadium, in protest against the country’s long-standing ban on supporters attending football matches.
The storming of the pitch in the Borg Al-Arab stadium in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria during an African Championship match by Ultras Ahlawy was the first major football-related incident since 20 fans were killed in Cairo last year in a clash with security forces. Police fired gas during the Alexandria incident, wounding 29 people.
Militant football fans played a key role in the 2011 revolt as well as in subsequent anti-government protests. Fans moreover constituted the backbone of anti-Al-Sisi student protests following the 2013 military coup in which he overthrew Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and paved the way for his election as president amid brutal repression of any opposition. The student protests were suppressed with an iron fist, while universities were turned into security force-controlled fortresses.
This week, police arrested dozens of activists across Egypt, ahead of protests planned in defiance of the country’s draconic anti-protest law for 25 April, which marks the anniversary of Israel’s return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, which it had captured during the 1967 Middle East war.
The demonstrations are against a deal that reviewed the maritime borders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which would see the transfer of sovereignty of the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran to the conservative Gulf kingdom. They are also the largest non-Islamist protests since the overthrow of Morsi, a member of the since-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The depth of mounting anti-government sentiment was evident in a recent incident on the outskirts of Cairo, when onlookers tried to stop paramedics from taking the body of a tea vendor who had been shot by police. The onlookers overturned the police car of the officer who had pulled the trigger, shouting “police are thugs”.
The incident, and other similar ones, suggested that—like in 2011—the brutality of unreformed security forces is fuelling anger at the government’s failure to halt economic deterioration and reform the security sector. Security force brutality is also hurting Egypt internationally, in the wake of the death of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student widely believed to have been detained and tortured by police before his body was found.
Al-Sisi’s responses to the criticism appear, on the on the one hand, to have become ever more imperious. When someone recently attempted to say something during a television appearance in which he defended the return of the islands to the Saudis, Al-Sisi snapped: “I have not given anyone permission to speak.”
At the same time, Al-Sisi seems to have become more sensitive to mounting dissatisfaction and the fact that the brutality of his security forces only serves to fuel dissent. In an unprecedented gesture in February, on the fourth anniversary of a politically loaded brawl in a stadium in the Suez Canal city of Port Said in which 72 members of Ultras Ahlawy died, Al-Sisi phoned into a television programme to invite the ultras to appoint 10 of their members to independently investigate the incident.
Ultras Ahlawy declined the invitation, saying it could not be accuser and judge at the same time, but kept the door to a dialogue open. The phone call constituted not only recognition of the fans’ street power but also an unprecedented attempt to reach out to Al-Sisi’s critics.
Similarly, Al-Sisi’s government did not denounce thousands of protesters who earlier this month took to the streets to condemn the surrender of the islands as supporters of the Brotherhood—an allegation the regime has levelled since 2013 against virtually anyone who expressed dissent. By the same token, security forces refrained from using excessive violence to disband the illegal protests.
Beyond his apparent newly-found sensitivity, Al-Sisi may have also feared that nationalist sentiment fuelled by the island issue could extend to the security forces and persuade them not to act forcefully against protesters.
The protests sparked by the island issue and the protesters’ adoption of slogans critical of the government’s overall performance are however likely to persuade Al-Sisi to keep the country’s stadiums closed to the public out of fear that they could become opposition rallying points. Egyptian teams have played in empty stadiums for much of the five years, having first been closed at the start of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in 2011.
The continued closure of the stadiums is nonetheless also risky as it incentivises the fans to play their part in broader protests against the government on issues they empathise with. This month’s incident in Alexandria’s Borg Al-Arab stadium potentially sets the stage for renewed confrontation.
Police said the incident was provoked by fans trying to enter the stadium without tickets. Ultras Ahlawy rejected the police narrative saying the fans had been barred despite having been invited.
Fearful that it would be blamed for potentially poor performances by Egyptian teams, the government has exempted international matches from its ban, allowing tightly controlled numbers of fans to attend those games.
Earlier this month, in another gesture towards the fans, the regime allowed for the first time thousands of militant fans or ultras to attend an African Champions League match between Al-Ahly arch rival Al-Zamalek SC and Algeria’s Mouloudia Olympique de Bejaia better known as MO Bejaia.
The fans believed that the fact that they had attended the game without incident would pave the way for a lifting of the ban. Those hopes were dashed when the Interior Ministry insisted after the game that stadiums would remain closed. The Borg Al-Arab incident was the fan’s response.
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 just published book with the same title.