Egyptian football stage set for confrontations of ultras

Egyptian football stage set for confrontations of ultras

James M. Dorsey Hürriyet Daily News
Egyptian football stage set for confrontations of ultras

Egypt’s failed to qualif for the World Cup after a 6-1 defeat to Ghana, but many Egyptians enjoyed the result due to a dissatisfaction their with their administration. REUTERS photo

Militant, street battle-hardened football fans played a key role in toppling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and resisting the military rulers who succeeded him. Almost three years later and four months after the military removed from office Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the stage appears to be set for renewed confrontations with the fans, one of the country’s largest civic groups.

The potential for confrontation is compounded by Egypt’s 6-1 loss earlier this month in a crucial 2014 World Cup qualifier against Ghana. Opposition forces and supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, blame Egypt’s defeat on military strongman General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. “You jinxed us, el-Sisi,” said Mohammed Dardeer on Facebook, describing the general as “religiously defiled,” in a comment reminiscent of perceptions in Iran that blamed the Islamic republic’s soccer failures on the intense interest in the game displayed by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ghana defeated Egypt at a time when the country is deeply divided between supporters and opponents of the military that deposed President Morsi and brutally cracked down on his Brotherhood.
“When a large number of Egyptians, too many to be ignored, felt happy after our national team lost to Ghana, didn’t the coup organizers ask themselves why they felt this way towards their national team? They most likely will not bother thinking about it, but will claim naively, ‘It is out of spite so that no victories, not even in football, will be attributed to General al-Sisi … Al-Sisi’s Egypt is no longer the Egypt of love that celebrates victories, as tyranny and injustice cannot win; they are defeated in every aspect, whether militarily, as in 1967 (Israel’s defeat of Egypt), or on the sports field. It is ironic that one of the coup leaders called the football result a catastrophe, which was what the 1967 defeat was called,” quipped Amira Abo el-Fetouh in the Middle East Monitor.

Ghana’s thrashing of Egypt did persuade the military to allow some 30,000 fans to attend the return match in an out-of-the-way Cairo stadium scheduled for Nov. 19, despite a ban on spectators in stadia designed to avert political protests. The symbolism of Egypt’s performance – victory or defeat – in the return match weighs heavy on the game given the regime’s need to project itself more positively internationally and to counter the analogy of defeats on the military and the soccer battlefields. The symbolism is all the greater, with al-Sisi celebrating his birthday on Nov. 19.

Bans on fans

The government’s decision to open the World Cup qualifier to spectators prompted Mohammed Yussef, the manager of storied Cairo club al-Ahli SC, to demand that fans also be allowed to attend the team’s African Championship match in Cairo on Nov. 9 against South Africa’s Orlando Pirates. Al-Ahli fans are among Egypt’s most militant and have been in the frontlines of the country’s major protests in recent years. “We need fans to attend this very important match. Al-Ahli is battling for the reputation of Egyptian football,” Mr. Yussef said in a reference to the Ghanaian humiliation of the Egyptian national team.

But even without politics intruding on Egypt’s struggle to qualify for next year’s Cup in Brazil, potential flashpoints for confrontations with militant football fans are emerging.

Police last week used to tear gas to disperse hundreds of al-Ahli supporters wearing their signature red T-shirts inscribed with the words: “Ultras are not criminals.” The fans were protesting the arrest of 25 of their colleagues who allegedly had tried to storm a Cairo airport terminal as the club’s handball team returned from Morocco.

Youth groups and football fans have warned that a draft protest law approved by the military-backed government that is currently being reviewed by interim president Adly Mansour paves the way for the return of the police state they had sought to destroy with the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak. The law gives security forces rather than the judiciary the right to cancel or postpone a planned protest or change its location. It obliges organizers to provide authorities in advance details of the planned protest, including the identity of the organizers and their demand. It further bans protests in within a 100 meter radius of government buildings.

The April 6 youth movement warned: “Time will not go back to the era of rulers issuing laws to silence their opponents.”