Egypt: How police and big bucks have taken the joy out of football

By Abir Sorour

Posted on Wednesday, 1 February 2023 09:43
Thousands of El Ahly team gathered in Egypt's capital Mokhtar Altitch Stadium in Cairo, as a result of the events held a memorial eventor the fourth anniversary of the massacre of Port Said with 72 people lost their lives. (Photo by Fayed El-Geziry /NurPhoto)

11 years ago, Egyptian football fans witnessed a massacre during a league game in Port Said between Cairo’s giant Al-Ahly and Port Said’s local Al-Masry. Since that day, the militarisation and ban on aspects of the game have changed the highly popular sport in the country.

On 1 February every year, the family and friends of Mahmoud Soliman Hassan go to visit their son’s grave to put flowers and lay red flowers where he is buried in the village of Al-Sheikh Gabil in the Sharqiyah governorate.

“He would have been 29 this month,” Hassan’s sister tells The Africa Report, adding that the family stopped watching football after the massacre.

Hassan was killed in a riot in 2012 that took place at the stadium in Port Said after a league game between Cairo’s giant Al-Ahly and Port Said’s local Al-Masry club. 73 other fans were killed in a chapter that changed Egyptian football.

11 years later, football in Egypt has become militarised and commercialised, with passionate fans either banned from attending games, or still imprisoned over terrorism-related charges. The matches instead have become an opportunity to garner nationalist support for the state, morally and financially.

Rivals on the pitch, equals in oppression

In 2007, Egypt saw the rise of the first ultras fan group, the Ultras White Knights (UWK), which supported the other Cairo giant Al-Zamalek football club. The ultras, a global phenomenon, is often a mix male, violent hooligan culture (as found in Britain) and the politicised anti-establishment groups in Europe and South America.

Before 2011, the UWK, later joined by another hardcore entity Ultras Ahlawy (the fanbase for Al-Ahly), were allowed to practise their performative songs to support their teams, which saved them from harassment by the police. However, during the 2011 uprising, while the majority of the team players supported the former and long-time ruling president, Hosni Mubarak, the Ultras joined forces to counter police presence in downtown Cairo, Tahrir square, and other areas, marking a victory over the establishment.

The Ultras used the stadiums to chant for all the oppressed despite their religion or politics, and that is when we chanted against the military

“After 2011, no cop could have harassed any member of the Ultras or illegally detained them. The police had a lot of antagonism against the fans,” Hassan’s longtime friend and former member of the Ultras Ahlawy, Ismail, tells The Africa Report.

“The Ultras used the stadiums to chant for all the oppressed despite their religion or politics, and that is when we chanted against the military [Egypt’s de facto rulers after 2011 after Mubarak’s resignation],” he says.

“Before the Port Said game on 1 February 2012, we [the Ultras] chanted against Tantawi [the country’s military leader at the time], and the massacre [at the stadium] was the military’s revenge,” Ziad, a 36 year-old engineer and former Ultras member, tells The Africa Report, echoing the strong belief among the Ultras that there was a conspiracy and the security services turned a blind eye against the violence of Al-Masry fans.

According to a fact-finding committee that investigated the killings, Al-Masry fans chased down Al-Ahly supporters, most of whom were Ultras members, with sticks and melee weapons, leading to a stampede.

In February 2015, a similar incident occurred where 21 Ultras White Knights’ members were killed after riot police fired warning shots and tear gas to ban the fans from entering the stadium just before an Al-Zamalek and Enppi match at the Air Defence Stadium in Cairo.

The match was still held despite the killings announced just before the match. In this case, no police officers were put on trial. However, other Ultras members were put on trial on charges of killing their comrades, including one of the most known ultras members Sayed Moshageb, who was given a seven-year prison sentence.

Upon hearing the news, members of Ultras Ahlawy, who were attending another match, burned their banner as a sign of solidarity. “The two teams, as well as their fans, hate each other and might kick the hell out of each other, but at this moment, we were brothers,” Ziad says.

Illegal fandom and the good fan

In 2016, three years after the military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian government declared all ultras groupings of the country’s fans illegal. Similar to several political parties and groups, the ultras are now referred to as terrorists.

“It was strange and crazy to see – in the prosecution unit […] – individuals accused of carrying arms against the military for example, and football fans being accused of the same charge,” says Arabawi, a lawyer who defended hundreds of the Ultras.

Many of them have affiliations and connections with Salafist groups and the leadership of the banned [Muslim Brotherhood] group

“The state does not want lower middle-class young revolutionary fans in public spaces to roam free. They might have opinions or ideas, which are not acceptable by the state,” says Arabawi. “They want the middle upper class families who come with their Egyptian flags and take selfies and enjoy their day in the stadium while chanting Long Live Egypt.”

Since 2013, Egyptian fans have not been allowed into stadiums. The ban was revoked in 2019 when Egypt hosted the Africa Cup of Nations. In response to the fear of the ultras fans, the government initiated the Tazkarty application (an online ticket purchase site) and fan IDs to run a security check.

What the Egyptian state sought was a politicised football and fans supportive of the nation. Indeed, Mohamed Zayed, a member of the youth and sports committee in the Egyptian parliament, asserts that the demise of the “Ultras has allowed ‘the Egyptian family’ to enjoy the game”.

“[At the time] there were terrorists, cursing, and throwing bottles, and not paying tickets. Egyptian football has flourished in performance and financially since they were banned,” he says. “Many of them have affiliations and connections with Salafist groups and the leadership of the banned [Muslim Brotherhood] group.”

Money and politics

However, professionals and critics do not see it that way and argue that the absence of these fans has led to a lack of accountability and corruption in the country.

Mohamed Ahmed, a sports journalist in several local sports websites, tells The Africa Report that “even though the Tazkarty company is owned by the state and has information of all applicants, fans are banned. Meanwhile, Iraq, which had a much worse terrorist insurgency, hosted the Asia Cup successfully with the attendance of thousands”.

The state benefits from keeping the situation like this.

He adds that despite the fact that the security apparatus, military and police, choose the stadiums, intervene in the league schedule, and are heavily deployed during games, “we see continuous failures with the national team and almost monthly allegations of corruption and nepotism in the Football Association”.

“How can we expect our teams to perform well in matches away from home when they play with no fans…in the home games?” says another journalist who works with the state-affiliated sports channel ON-TV Sports.

“When there are millions on the line in ads and campaign money, no one dares talk about corruption,” he says. “Everyone takes a cut.”

“The state benefits from keeping the situation like this. They control the big PR companies, TV channels, ticketing applications, and the stadium authority, and now they even own their club: Future FC,” says the journalist. The club is named after the Nation’s Future party, the owner of the majority of seats in the house of representatives and the senate. The team benefits from having a news website, generous donations, and significant access.

“There is a joke that the players of the team who play against Future don’t sleep in their houses if they win, fearing they get arrested,” he says.

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