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Egypt: Revolutionary Football

Last Wednesday night, in Egypt’s Port Said, one of the most gruesome and deadliest instances of football hooliganism left 74 dead and hundreds wounded, leaving the world in a state of shock. Whether these soccer riots were an isolated act of soccer violence (not uncommon in Egyptian football history) or a metaphor for the political instability since Mubarak’s fall, is still unclear. Nevertheless, a few remarks can be made.

Following a league game in which two of Egypt’s most popular football rivals, Al-Ahly and Al-Masri played against one another thousands of Al-Masri fans stormed the field due to Al-Ahly’s 3-1 win, causing chaos. During this panic, knives and swords were used between the two teams’ fans and spectators as well as staff died from head concussions, asphyxiation, and other injuries from stampeding and trampling. This tragedy was not stopped by the negligence of the security forces, which according to witnesses, did nothing to stop the sanguinary carnage.

What are we to make of this? Conspiracy theories suggest that there have been deliberate attempts by regime loyalists to commit acts of ‘thuggery’ in order to justify military rule by spreading chaos. Leaving this aside, there are political undertones to this deadly incident.

The very fact that angry youth have been involved in protests (and even clashes with the security forces) at the Interior Ministry days after the football riot indicate a growing frustration with what Egyptians perceive to be a negligent security apparatus. It is important to add that there has been no meaningful police reform since Mubarak resigned from the presidency. Anger currently permeating Cairo’s streets stems from the emergence of a massive disjuncture between the political forces of the revolution’s aftermath and the ‘street’.

In Egypt, the “ultras” are football hooligans which vehemently support the Al-Ahly team. When we trace back the key frontline role that the “ultras” have played in the Egyptian uprising, the political aspect of this incident become apparent. The “ultras” were also one of the leading actors in the violence staged against the Israeli Embassy a few months ago, as well as during the Tahrir Square clashes in the days leading up to the parliamentary elections. Thus, recently, deep animosity has characterized the contentious relations between the politicized disaffected football hooligans and the police forces. The unparalleled levels of football violence in Egypt reveal something structurally deeper than a simple outpouring of violence after a soccer game.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), as well as a number of parliamentarians, have been categorical in their denunciation of the security’s miserable failure at Port Said. Governors and senior officials have been sacked and the Egyptian premiere league has been suspended, followed by three days of mourning. As Mohamed El Dahshan suggests, many Egyptians “believe that the security shortcoming was intended, and that the police, with SCAF’s blessing, had sent saboteurs into the midst of the fans to teach the Ahly Ultras a lesson.” Whether or not that is true, the feeling is pervasive among Egyptian society.

Soccer, as well as mosques, are two centres in which dissent and opposition to the regime thrived, hence the symbolic importance of football in Egypt. The fact that the riots are emblematic of a precarious domestic situation and a mirror for the street’s discontent and disaffection, is a very telling picture indeed. It is still too early to tell whether the attacks were deliberately allowed, or whether police negligence was simply a result of a post-revolutionary security vacuum. What is certain, however, is that Egypt is still in the midst of severe turmoil with the gap between the revolutionary “street” and the police authorities yet to be redressed. Evidently, the Egyptian Revolution is still going on.

–  Jaïs Mehaji

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One comment

  1. I agree.. tragic result of a nation where tensions still run high and many questions have been left unanswered for too long. Thanks for the article, good insight.

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