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Egyptian soccer matches foreshadow mass anti-government protest

By James M. Dorsey

Controversial soccer matches this weekend constitute a potential walk-up to a watershed mass anti-government demonstration on June 30 that has Egyptians of all political stripes bracing themselves for political violence and increased uncertainty

The soccer matches and mounting tension in advance of the protest are likely to be seen by militant, highly politicized, violence-prone and street battle-hardened soccer fans as an opportunity to demonstrate their sustained mettle and resolve. The fans, one of Egypt’s largest civic groups, played a key role in the toppling two years ago of President Hosni Mubarak 2.5 years ago and opposition to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government since.

Concern about clashes at the matches and the protest has also sparked debate within the security forces and the military, who are widely held responsible for the deaths of some 900 protesters since the ousting of Mr. Mubarak, on how to deal with potential soccer-related violence as well as the planned protest.

The interior ministry, which controls the police and security forces, initially opposed allowing Egyptian league matches to proceed because of threats by soccer fans to storm stadiums in protest against a ban on spectators. The ministry feared that clashes with fans would add to already mounting tension in advance of June 30. In an about face however, the ministry late this week said it would permit the games to be played on Saturday and Sunday instead of on Thursday and Friday as originally scheduled.

Security forces are nevertheless bracing for renewed clashes with fans that in the past two years have left thousands injured and scores dead. Fans have been largely banned from matches ever since the league resumed in February after a year-long suspension in the wake of the deaths of 74 supporters last year in a politically loaded brawl in Port Said.

"We are giving you 48 hours; we are giving you a chance to stop suppressing and provoking us. Either we return to the stands or … you will know what will happen soon,” the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, warned this week in a statement.

Mr. Morsi’s Brotherhood spotlighted the importance of soccer and the role of the militant fans in football-crazy Egypt earlier this month by announcing that it would field candidates for the board elections of Zamalek and other major football teams in what many see as a bid to control the politically significant sport.

Attempts by soccer fans to gain access to stadiums this weekend could be a foretaste of what may happen on June 30, the first anniversary of Mohammed Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first freely-elected post-revolt leader. Ad hoc group Tamarud (Rebel) hopes to commemorate his anniversary with a million-man march on the presidential palace. Tamarud has reportedly collected 15 million signatures, two million more than the 13 million votes the president garnered a year ago, on a petition demanding Mr. Morsi’s resignation and new elections.

The petition that a significant number of militant soccer fans are believed to have signed, takes Mr. Morsi to task for his failure to tackle the country’s economic crisis, dispel fears that he is pursuing an Islamist agenda, and his haughty style of government that many see as a continuation of Mubarak’s authoritarianism. It calls on the military and the judiciary in violation of the constitution to lead the country to new elections. Youth groups and soccer fans see Tamarud’s mobilization success and the June 30 march as an opportunity to reinvigorate their movement and launch a second revolution.

Fears of violence have been fuelled by attacks by Morsi supporters on Tamarud representatives as they publicly collected signatures on street corners and other public spaces. Supporters and opponents of Mr. Morsi clashed for hours last week in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

To ensure the authenticity of its petition, Tamarud has insisted that signatories identify themselves and register their identity document. Irrespective of whether or not the soccer matches and the June 30 march produce the kind of violence that could shift Egypt’s political paradigm, they indicate just how deeply divided Egypt is and the degree of lack of confidence in Mr. Morsi among a significant segment of the population.

Concern that violence could prevail was reinforced by some Islamist groups calling for counter demonstrations on June 30 as well as the expectation that soccer fans and the Black Bloc, a vigilante group founded by militant soccer enthusiasts, will act as a protective and potentially provocative force during the anti-government march. Attempts by cooler heads within Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to avert what could prove to be a game-changing outpour of anger against the government by reaching out to opposition groups have so far failed.

The mounting tension has further thrown the spotlight on Mr. Morsi’s troubled relationship with the security forces witness the interior ministry’s dithering on the soccer matches as well as an initial statement that police would stay away from the Tamarud demonstration that was later withdrawn. Security officials fear that the police, which is widely despised because of its enforcement of repression in the Mubarak era and its subsequent at times deadly clashes with protesters, will be seen as being supportive of a Morsi government it distrusts if it comes to clashes with protesters this weekend and on June 30.

Hossam Ghali, the captain of crowned Zamalek rival Al Ahli SC, reflected Egyptians’ worries about where there country is heading by deciding this week to postpone a decision on whether to extend his contract until after the June 30 march. "I'm now considering leaving Egypt because of the ongoing political turmoil, which is seriously affecting Egyptian football. It will be difficult to continue in Egypt under such circumstances," Al Ahli’s website quoted him as saying.

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

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