Recognising fan-power: Egypt's regime boosts calls for security reform

Recognising fan-power: Egypt's regime boosts calls for security reform
7 min read
11 Apr, 2016
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his brutal regime are beginning to recognise and acknowledge the potential street power of the country's diehard football fans, writes James M. Dorsey.

In a rare gesture towards  his opponents, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's brutal regime has twice this year recognised the potential street power of his country's militant, street battle-hardened football fans.

In doing so, the regime has implicitly acknowledged that security forces rather than the fans were responsible for past violence and provided ammunition for calls for wholesale reform of law enforcement.

The Sisi regime's latest move came this week when for the first time in five years it allowed thousands of members of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), hard-line supporters of Cairo club Zamalek FC - who played a key role in the 2011 toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and in protests against subsequent governments - to attend an African Champions League match against Algeria's Mouloudia Olympique de Bejaia better known as MO Bejaia.

The decision to allow UWK into the stadium followed warnings by the group and its arch rival, Ultras Ahlawy, the militant support group of Ahli SC, that they would defy the interior ministry's ban, risking yet another deadly clash with security forces.

UWK subsequently said that it wanted to prevent a replay of what happened in February 2015. The last time authorities agreed to allow larger numbers of fans into a stadium, around 20 UWK supporters were killed in Cairo by security forces.

Last year's incident followed the death of 72 Ahlawy members in Port Said in 2012 in an incident that was widely seen as an attempt gone awry by the security forces and the military to teach the ultras a lesson and put them in their place.

[Sisi's] regime has implicitly acknowledged that security forces rather than the fans were responsible for past violence and provided ammunition for calls for wholesale reform of law enforcement.

Sisi first tacitly acknowledged the power of the fans in February of this year when the day after Ahlawy's commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the Port Said incident, he 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 play the role of both accuser and judge at the same time, but kept the door to a dialogue open.

Sisi's gesture was all the more remarkable given that Islamist members of the UWK and Ultras Ahlawy had formed the backbone of student protests in universities and flash demonstrations in popular neighbourhoods of Cairo in 2013 against the general-turned-president's overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first and only democratically elected president.

The protests were brutally suppressed as the regime turned universities into fortresses of security forces.

Last year's incident followed the death of 72 Ahlawy
members in Port Said in 2012 [AFP]

Scores of UWK members are being held in detention for violating Egypt's draconian anti-protest law. In March, an Egyptian court acquitted one leader of the UWK, Sayed Ali Moshagheb, of charges of establishing an illegal organisation, the UWK, while another court sentenced him to a year in prison for attacking the Zamalek club house. Moshagheb has filed an appeal against the court's verdict.

Fans have been banned from stadiums many times over the last five years because authorities feared their potential to turn the pitch into a venue of mass political protest. The regime made exceptions for international matches in order to avoid being blamed for a club or a team's poor performance but it largely ensured that militant fans or ultras were only admitted in small numbers.

The fact that the fans attended this week's match in large numbers without incident strengthens their argument that the burden of guilt for years of violent confrontations lies with the security forces rather than the supporters.

UWK alongside other groups of ultras has long called for a lifting of the ban, noting that they have been attending their club's training sessions as well as competitions in other sports practiced by Zamalek without incident.

The UWK's ability to maintain its capacity to mobilise was demonstrated during the African Championship match. This was enought to persuade the government and its representatives at the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to continue to keep stadiums closed.

The fact that the fans attended this week's match in large numbers without incident strengthens their argument that the burden of guilt for years of violent confrontations lies with the security forces rather than the supporters.

"It was expected that only 2,500 supporters would attend the game, but we were surprised when 8,000 people or more were in attendance," the head of the EFA's Competitions Committee, Amer Hussein, said after the match.

"The high number of fans present was due to poor organisation at the entrance to the stadium," he added, drawing a distinction between international matches and domestic league games.

"It's preferred to keep the crowd ban on the domestic games as I am not optimistic about [the return of this large number of fans]... Fans entered the game without tickets, Zamalek could be fined. There were no inspections for fans before entering the stadium, so there is still a threat," he said.

Clubs as well as the national team suffer not only financially from the lack of ticket sales and reduced sponsorship as a result of the ban, but also from the absence of the support of the fans, an important driver of performance.

UWK commemorate the fourth anniversary
of the Port Said massacre [Anadolu]

"Zamalek were finally boosted by heavy fan support at home for the first time in months as they claimed a 2-0 home victory over Algeria's MO Bejaia, moving closer to a place in the African Champions League group stage on Saturday," state-owned al-Ahram newspaper and online news service reported.

"Thousands of hard-core supporters, who belong to ardent fan group Ultras White Knights, took their seats in the northern stands of Cairo's Petrosport Stadium and feverishly cheered on Zamalek... Their presence appeared to spur on Zamalek's players who celebrated with the fans following the final whistle." 

The UWK's performance in the match against the Algerians takes on added significance given their troubled relationship with the controversial, larger-than-life chairman of Zamalek, Mortada Mansour.

A politician and member of parliament, Mansour has accused UWK of trying to assassinate him and has unsuccessfully sought to persuade Egyptian courts to ban ultras groups as terrorist organizations.

The government and EFA's fear of the ultras and the fans' obvious ability to mobilise and control their ranks, coupled with the recent brutal murder in Cairo of Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge University PhD student of the Egyptian labour movement, highlights the need for wholesale reform of Egyptian law enforcement.

Italy recalled its ambassador from Cairo this month amid widespread belief that the torture marks on Regeni's body had the hallmarks of Egyptian security force practice.

The government and EFA's fear of the ultras and the fans' demonstrated ability to mobilise and control their ranks, coupled with the recent brutal murder in Cairo of Giulio Regeni, highlights the need for wholesale reform of Egyptian law enforcement.

Despite a few recent cases in which Sisi has allowed law enforcement personnel to be put on trial for alleged abuse, there is little indication that he is willing to tackle a structural problem. In the view of Yezid Sayegh, a scholar of Arab security forces and militaries, this can only be addressed in a transparent and more politically liberal environment.

"Increasing social polarisation in many Arab states over the last two decades has impeded consensus on how to restructure and reform policing. Marginalisation of up to 40% of the population, who live at or below the poverty line, has fuelled political challenges, in turn subjecting entire social segments to targeting by official security bodies," Sayegh said.

"Furthermore, the determination to crush dissent affects the urban middle classes, which might otherwise be the strongest proponents of security-sector reform in this area. Both Egypt and Syria are prime examples of this."

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 of the same title.

This commentary was first published on his blog.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.