First Published: 2012-02-06

 

Port Said Helps Forge Bridges and Reopens Fault Lines in Egypt

 

Ironically, the Port Said tragedy immediately after a match in which the city’s Al Masri SC defeated Al Ahly, may help restructure strained relations in Egyptian soccer and launch it on a badly needed road of reform, reports James M. Dorsey.

 

Middle East Online

With the street battles in Cairo between militant soccer fans and protesters becoming ever more vicious, the death of 74 supporters of crowned Cairo soccer club Al Ahli SC in Port Said is sparking a reconciliation among once implacable foes while at the same time solidifying emerging fault lines in Egyptian society.

Budding ties between arch rival ultras – militant, well-organized, highly-politicized, street-battled hardened soccer fans – of Al Ahly and its arch rival, Cairo’s storied Al Zamalek SC, have been boosted by the lethal incident in Port Said.

Ultras of the two Cairo teams who had battled one and other for years stood a year ago for the first time in their five-year old history shoulder-to-shoulder on Tahrir Square manning the front lines of the protests that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. They were the first to absorb attacks by security forces and Mubarak loyalists.

Throughout the year, ultras of both teams repeatedly found themselves on the same side against a common enemy during the storming of the offices of the hated State Security Service, which has since been renamed the National Security Force; protests demanding the resignation of the now dismissed board of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA); the storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo last September; and vicious street battles in November and December in streets near Tahrir in support of their call for an immediate return to their barracks of Egypt’s military rulers. Some 50 people died and more than 1,000 were wounded in those clashes.

With many Egyptians convinced that the incident in Port Said constituted a planned, deliberate targeting of the Al Ahly ultras, ultras of all stripes see the incident as an attack on all ultras in a bid to break their resolve as the most militant opposition to the military’s designs to shape the future of Egypt in its image in a bid to preserve their Mubarak era perks and privileges.

As a result, ultras of Al Ahly and Al Zamalek are again together braving tear gas and birdshot in their effort to storm the interior ministry in central Cairo, under which the hated police and security forces resort. At least 12 people have been killed and hundreds wounded.

Ironically, the Port Said tragedy immediately after a match in which the city’s Al Masri SC defeated Al Ahly, may help restructure strained relations in Egyptian soccer and launch it on a badly needed road of reform.

The failure of the overwhelming majority of players to support last year’s uprising against Mr. Mubarak had further strained relations with the ultras who view themselves as the only true supporters of their clubs. To them, players are hired guns willing to switch allegiances for money while management consists largely of corrupt Mubarak appointees. Al Ahly ultras last March unfolded a huge banner addressed to players during their team’s friendly against Harras El-Hodoud that read: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you."

Players have since pressured the ultras unsuccessfully to moderate their support tactics that include the use of fireworks, flares, smoke guns and abusive chanting because the clubs were being penalized.

However, in a sign of the changing times, the Al Ahly ultras this weekend apologized on an especially created Facebook page named “We are sorry Shika” to Zamalek winger Mahmoud Abdel-Razek aka Shikabala, widely viewed as Egypt’s top player, for routinely abusing him verbally during their clubs’ derbies. The abuse frequently lead to Shikabala and Al Ahly fans trading insults in heated exchanges.

Responding in an interview on the Zamalek club’s website, Shikabala welcomed the apology. “Despite the cruelty of what happened in Port Said, this disaster played a role in uniting the fans of all clubs. It might be a turning point in ending intolerance and hatred in Egyptian football. I will go to the Ahly club along with my teammates to offer our condolences to the families of Port Said martyrs. The fans of Ahly are my brothers. I hope Ahly and Zamalek fans can sit together in the stands without barriers," he said.

Players, fans and clubs may also find common ground in opposing a demand by Sepp Blatter, the president of world soccer body FIFA that the government reinstates the EFA board dismissed in the wake of Port Said on the grounds that its firing constituted political interference. Clubs and fans have been demanding the resignation of the board for the past year. Mr. Blatter’s call rings hallow given that the board consists of Mubarak appointees who further the ousted president’s efforts to control and manipulate the game to his political benefit.

It also rings hallow given the fact that despite a nominal 2013 FIFA deadline for a restructuring of Egyptian soccer FIFA essentially tolerated the fact that the vast majority of Egyptian premier league clubs fail to meet the soccer body’s criteria for league membership. These criteria include that an owner can only have one club in the league – several Egyptian premier league teams are military owned --; must have its own stadium – virtually no club does and if it does as in the case of Wadi Degla was not allowed by the security services to use it; and should be financially self-sufficient – few Egyptian clubs are.

If Port Said is setting the stage for a reordering of Egyptian soccer, it is also reinforcing emerging fault lines in a country that is protest weary, retains confidence in the military despite its brutality, is frustrated with the lack of immediate economic benefit from the revolt and yearns for normalcy so that Egypt can return to economic growth.

The public mood increasingly meant that the ultras, revered for their fearlessness and contribution to the ousting of Mr. Mubarak, were growing isolated with the public opting for electoral politics and turning its back on contentious street politics. Port Said brought the ultras out of their isolation with thousands of Egyptians in recent days joining their efforts to seek retribution by attacking the interior ministry.

It also sparked counter demonstrations. “Those who love Egypt should not destroy it” and "Police or people…we are all Egyptians," demonstrators chanted demanding a ceasefire between the ultras and the security forces. Residents on Cairo’s Mansour and Mohammed Mahmoud streets, the scene of the battles, complain barricades erected by the security forces and the clashes were disrupting daily life in their neighborhood.

Various groups including relatives of Port Said casualties, members of parliament and the imam of Tahrir Square’s Omar Markram mosque, Mazhar Shahin have been seeking to negotiate a ceasefire. Ahmad Maher, a leader of the April 6 movement that played a key role in the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, suffered a fractured skull and concussion when he was hit by a rock while trying to negotiate a truce.

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

 

Libya rivals meet for unity deal talks in Morocco

IS 'bulldozed' Iraq’s historic Nimrud

EU’s Mogherini 'Good deal' on Iran nuclear programme is near

Several Qaeda leaders killed in Syria regime attack

Dubai launches first 3D pavement art festival

South Sudan's warring leaders fail to reach deal

Some 28,000 ‘have fled’ Iraq's Tikrit

BP to invest $12 billion in Egypt gas fields

FBI calls for 'vigilance' against IS recruitment online

Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia reach basis of Nile water deal

Jewish tradition could help struggling Gaza farmers

Egypt Interior Minister replaced in cabinet reshuffle

Saudi Arabia urges coalition to fight jihadists 'on ground'

Algeria criminalises violence against women

Sisi replaces interior minister in cabinet reshuffle

Executions set 'unprecedented' pace in Saudi Arabia

Libya declares more than 10 oil fields ‘non-operational’ after IS attacks

Syria exiled opposition chief seeks to unite dissidents

US warns against sectarianism in Tikrit offensive

Thousands of Filipinos remain in Libya despite perilous situation

South Sudan peace talks hit deadlock ahead of deadline

Kerry seeks to allay Gulf states’ fears on Iran

Turkey will not take part in Iraq offensive to retake Mosul

Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen freed

Libya urges UN to lift arms embargo

Mali rebel groups urged to sign peace deal

At least 34 dead in Syria rebel attack on intel HQ

Assad likens himself to Superman

Libya declares force majeure at 11 oil fields

Iran’s regional influence ‘not negiotiable’

Women protest for peace ahead of Israel election

Concerns rise over civilians’ safety in Iraq military operation

UN invites Libya leaders for crisis talks in Algeria

Israel to double water quota to Gaza ‘within days’

Abbas: Palestinians ready to talk with "whoever" wins Israel election

Fire at Cairo convention centre injures 19 people

US, Iran wrap up three days of intense nuclear negotiations

EU reviews policy in response to Ukraine, Arab Spring

IAEA delegation to hold talks in Tehran on March 9

Tunisia rescues 86 African migrants at sea

Saudi executing at 'unprecedented' pace

Turkish Airlines plane skids off Nepal runway

British former marine 'killed' in Syria

Iran slams boring Netanyahu's continuous lie-spreading in US speech

'Saudi prince' New York apartment on sale for $48.5m