Six years after the Port Said riot, Egypt's fans return to the stadiums
Zamalek Six years after the Port Said riot, Egyptâs fans return to the stadiums Supporters are allowed to watch domestic games regularly for the first time since 2012 but they have to give details to the security services â" and chanting could be monitored
When Egyptian spectators returned to the stands for a match between Zamalek FC and ENPPI earlier this month, smiling fans filled some of the allotted 5,000 seats in the 16,000-capacity stadium. They grinned and waved flags, working hard to create some atmosphere at the first domestic football game where supporters were permitted in the stands in six years.
While the fans attempted to fill the PetroSport Stadium with cheers and chants of âTonight we came and the league is oursâ, they also avoided any behaviour that could be seen as contentious.Africaâs group-stage failure stems from lack of resources and talent drain Read more
Despite only 5,000 fans being allowed in a 16,000-capacity stadium, the images of cheering spectators were still a watershed moment, a contrast to six years of footage of domestic matches played to entirely empty arenas. A ban on spectators was imposed in 2012, following a riot in a stadium in Port Said which left 74 fan s dead and more than 500 injured. The ban was previously lifted and swiftly reinstated following the death of 20 Zamalek fans in 2015, when police fired teargas and birdshot at fans entering Cairoâs Air Defence Stadium.
Supporters have been allowed at matches against teams from other countries, such as during Egyptâs successful campaign to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. But the announcement that fans are allowed into football grounds for domestic games again appeared to signal that the Egyptian government felt it had succeeded in controlling not just the clubs or the fans, but the game itself. After years of repeated crackdowns on the extreme fans known as ultras, seen as an insurgent group due to their involvement in the 2011 protests that overthrew the former autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the government now views football as a boon to the economy and to its nationalist project. The result is the return of fans to the stadiums for domestic as well as international games, but only those vetted and approved by the government, permanently altering the game as a result.
Outside al-Ahly football club in central Cairo, white paint covers walls previously scrawled with pro-ultras and anti-government graffiti. What was once a series of murals displaying tags of allegiance to the club, the country, and the ultras themselves has been erased. All that remains is a muted mural to the 74 fans killed in Port Said.
Since 2013, when Abdel Fatah al-Sisi swept to the presidency after a military coup, the government has taken extraordinary measures to crack down on ultras, including waves of arrests and labelling them terrorist organisations, despite a diverse range of political views among the ultras themselves.
âAfter the 2015 massacre, there have been wide and random arrests of many ultras members,â said Sheko, a member of the Ultras White Knights, extreme fans of Zamalek. âI was one of them but I got out quickly because I knew someone in the police station. They entered my house at dawn and went through everything in the house and arrested me, they blindfolded me until I reached the police station.â
The crackdown on the ultras forms the extreme end of a constant tussle between fans, the clubs themselves and even individual players over whether any political expression is permitted in Egyptian football today. Moha med Salah, the beloved Egyptian now starring for Liverpool, has strenuously avoided any potential links to politics. Salah has asked for increased control of his public appearances following his visibly uncomfortable meeting with the controversial Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov during the World Cup. The player is resisting the fate of the iconic Egyptian footballer Mohamed Aboutrika, now in exile in Qatar and added to the countryâs terror list over his alleged links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group.
The return of fans to grounds signals that the government feels it has won the battle, removing any perceived anti-government sentiment from the stands and the game, and wresting control of the public spaces in stadiums. âBecause of all the money flowing into the football sector, you need to bring back the fans as this increases the economic value of the tournament and championships,â said Ziad Akl, an analyst with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies an d a longtime Ahly fan.
âBut at the same time, the Egyptian regime has specific issues with fans organising collectively for football. So if these fans can be depoliticised they can return to stadiums. This is the real political motivation for allowing fans back into the stadium: the belief that they have successfully depoliticised the game,â he said.
Fans allowed back in to grounds will also have to provide their personal details to the Egyptian security services in order to gain admission. This will allow the government access to their data as a method of control, a lingering threat that should they chant or behave in a way the state dislikes, they are easy to catch.
âI havenât been to matches for years, and Iâm certainly not going to start now,â said Sheko. âIâm not stupid enough to give the security services my address, where I work, and my full name. I donât mind doing this to vote or to get a national ID, but I wonât do this for a football match.â
Akl and Sheko both point to the birth of Pyramids FC as symbolic of the governmentâs aim to profit from its control of football. The club, previously known as Alassouity Sport, was transformed by more than $33m (Â£25m) in investment on players alone by the clubâs new billionaire owner, Turki al-Sheikh, chairman of the Saudi Arabian General Sports Authority. Akl beli eves that Saudi Arabiaâs financial and political support for the Sisi presidency is evident in the new clubâs politics, including its slogan: âChange your principles and support Pyramids.â
âThe state is trying to teach you how to cheer. Look at this new club, Pyramids, and their chants â" they have pro-Sisi chants for example,â he said. âItâs not that the state has an issue with you cheering, itâs that it has an issue with how youâre cheering. Basically this whole thing is a trial â" if the state feels that people can gather collectively without political orientation and backgrounds, then no problem.â
But the governmentâs efforts to control football for its own ends mean that the atmosphere inside stadiums is less attractive to many traditional fans, affecting the game as a result. âThe passion is no longer as it was, unfortunately,â said Mohamed Elbanna, a longtime Zamalek fan and a journalist with the Cairo-based sports site FilGoal.com, when asked if he would attend matches now that fans are allowed to return.
Elbanna blames the lack of atmosphere on the reduced number of fans and the kind of people willing to watch football in a neutered environment. âOf course they wonât be the real fans,â he says.
Additional reporting by Adham YoussefTopics
- Egypt (Football)
- Egypt (World news)
- Middle East and North Africa
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