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Egyptian military authorizes resumption of soccer, confrontation with ultras looms

Adding to the powder keg: The Black Bloc (Source: Dalia Rabie/Egypt Independent)

By James M. Dorsey

Egypt’s military has authorized the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to resume league matches this weekend a year after they were suspended in the wake of a politically loaded brawl that left 74 soccer fans dead.

The move a day after Defense Minister and armed forces commander Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sissi warned of a potential “collapse of the state” signals the military’s expanding involvement in Egypt’s worsening crisis and threatens to pit it against militant soccer fans or ultras who hold it co-responsible for the worst incident in Egyptian sports history.

The emergence of the Black Bloc, a group of battle-hardened militant soccer fans or ultras dressed in black with their faces hidden behind black mask that has intervened in recent days to protect protesters against the security forces and what they describe as Muslim Brotherhood thugs, adds to the powder keg. A militant Islamist group has already asserted that Black Bloc members should be killed.

It was not immediately clear what motivated the military to assume a responsibility of the interior ministry whose police and security forces are preoccupied with quelling protests against the government of President Mohammed Morsi by authorizing the resumption of soccer.

Analysts are divided about whether it constitutes an ill-conceived attempt to maintain a façade of normalcy and demonstrate that the military and the security forces can secure Egypt’s streets or the creation of an opportunity to crack down on militant, highly politicized, well-organized and street battle experience fan groups as well as others that may be organizing themselves as militias or vigilantes. In doing so, the military would be tapping into a yearning among a majority of protest-weary Egyptians who yearn for a return to normalcy.

The government and the EFA have been further under pressure from clubs and players to lift the suspension of soccer that has hit them hard financially and undermined player morale.

Ultras, 21 of which were sentenced to death last weekend on charges of responsibility for the deaths in Port Said, play an important part in the anti-Morsi protests. Their relationship with the military soured in the last two years after their key role in the toppling two years ago of President Hosni Mubarak because of their militant opposition to military rule that led Egypt from the rule of Mr. Mubarak to that of Mr. Morsi and their growing rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood leader’s government.

The resumption of professional soccer in the midst of a political crisis that has erupted on the streets of Egyptian cities constitutes a rejection of the ultras’ insistence that matches only be restarted once justice has been served in the Port Said case and their insistence that fans in contradictions to the military-endorsed terms of the interior ministry be allowed to attend matches.

The 21 condemned to death row, supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri SC, were among 73 people, including nine mid-level security officials on trial for the death of primarily supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC at the end of a match between the two in the Suez Canal city. The verdict has reinforced widespread discontent on both sides of the soccer divide and across Egypt.

In Port Said it reinforced a sense that the city was being scapegoated for an incident that constituted an attempt that got out of hand to reign in militant soccer fans. Al Ahli militants share Port Said's perception that the incident in their city was not spontaneous or coincidental..

The court’s delay until March 9 of the sentencing of the remaining 52 defendants, including the security officials, as well as the fact that it has yet to address the question of who was really responsible for the incident spoke directly to one of the issues fueling the anti-Morsi campaign: the fact that virtually no one has been held accountable until now for the deaths of more than 800 protesters since the revolt against Mr. Mubarak erupted.

The government and the EFA have failed on several occasions in the past six months to lift the suspension of soccer. The interior ministry and the ultras both opposed it for different reasons. The ministry long wanted to avoid renewed street battles with the ultras in a bid to shore up the tarnished image of its police and security forces who are despised as the repressive arm of the Mubarak regime and are now seen by the ultras and others as the enforcers of the new Mubarak, Mr. Morsi.

Mr. Morsi ordered on Wednesday the shortening of curfews in three Suez Canal cities – Port Said, Suez and Ismailia – amid so far unsuccessful attempts to engage the opposition in dialogue. The military’s authorization of the resumption of soccer authorization of the resumption of soccer, consistent with the misreading of the public mood by the armed forces, threatens to complicate the president’s efforts and fails to address the issues underlying the protests in Egypt – a cry for justice, greater transparency and inclusivity, reform of Mubarak era state institutions first and foremost among which the police and security forces, and recovery of an economy in decline.

To ensure security and minimize the risk of confrontation, the defense ministry said in a statement quoted by Al Ahram Online that the first half of the resumed league would be played in military stadiums. The ministry said further that matches scheduled to be played in Suez Canal and Red Sea cities would be hosted elsewhere. Al Masri moreover bowed to pressure to abstain itself from the initial league season to avoid increased tension. The military aware of the evocative power of soccer owns several soccer clubs and military-owned construction companies have built a number of Egypt’s stadiums.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

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