By James M. Dorsey
Militant, street battle-hardened Egyptian soccer fans set the stage for growing protests against the government of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi when they earlier this month 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, the militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC, was the first major soccer-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.
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The incident occurred amid growing criticism of Mr. Al-Sisi and protests against his handing over to Saudi Arabia of two islands in the Red Sea earlier this month during a visit to Cairo earlier this month by Saudi King Salman. The protesters although far smaller in number than those that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have adopted slogans reminiscent of the chants employed during the 2011 popular revolt. Protesters shouted “Bread, freedom – the islands are Egyptian!” during recent protests, an adaptation of the 2011 chant, “Bread, freedom and justice.” Militant soccer 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. Police this week arrested dozens of activists across Egypt in advance of protests planned in defiance of the country’s draconic anti-protest law for April 25, the anniversary of Israel’s return to Egypt of the Sinai which it had captured during the 1967 Middle East war. The demonstrations are the largest non-Islamist protests since the overthrow of Mr. 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. Mr. Al-Sisi 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, Mr. Al-Sisi snapped: “I have not given anyone permission to speak.” At the same time, Mr. 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, Mr. Al-Sisi phoned into a television program to invite the ultras to appoint ten 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 Mr. Al-Sisi’s critics. Similarly, Mr. 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 dissident. By the same token, security forces refrained from using excessive violence to disband the illegal protests. Beyond his apparent newly found sensitivity, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 incentivizes the fans to play their part in broader protests against the government on issues they empathize 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 version 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 Ahli 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. Dr. 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.