Egyptian fans cheer prior to the a match in Alexandria in 2009. © fstockfoto / Shutterstock.com
James M. Dorsey
Last updated: October 12, 2011

Emboldened Fans Rewrite the Politics of Egyptian Football

Egyptian football fans, emboldened by their role in protests that deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in office, are seeking to alter the politics of their country’s beautiful game.

Their newly-acquired sense of entitlement and demand for far-reaching reform reflects Egypt’s post-revolution mood. Protesters, including militant football fans, imbued with what people power can achieve continue to demonstrate in a bid to clean out the remnants of the former regime, ensure that Mr. Mubarak era officials are held accountable and maintain pressure on the country’s military rulers to fulfil their pledge to lead Egypt to democracy within six months.

The fans’ heady sense of success has brought together ultras, organized die-hard fanatical football fans, of arch rivals, who prior to Egypt’s popular revolt met only in fierce street battles; put storied clubs like Cairo’s Al Ahly SC with its century-old history of nationalist, populist politics on the defensive, transformed starred players and managers into seemingly greedy individuals fighting for privilege and targeted prominent football managers who aligned themselves with Mr. Mubarak during the protests.

The new mood among Egypt’s football fans is changing the relationship of the clubs and the country’s national team with their support base. It is likely to force significant changes in management as well as significant personnel and structural change at a time that senior football officials are under investigation for alleged corruption and clubs are struggling economically as a result of a three-month ban on professional matches earlier this year to prevent the football pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point, and diminished government support. At least half of Egypt’s 16 Premier League teams are owned by the government, the military and the police.

The newly-found solidarity among supporters of Al Ahly and its arch rival Al Zamalek SC forges a bridge across diametrically opposed political and social poles. The roots of their rivalry pre-date the popular revolt to when Britain ruled Egypt and football was regarded as the colonial power’s only popular cultural import and dictated their relations until Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow. On Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Al Ahly and Al Zamalek ultras set aside their differences to bolster the opposition with their organizational and logistical know-how as well as their experience in street battles. They did so again in September in protests against the military’s handling of the transition to democracy.

The joining of forces of the two clubs’ ultras against the backdrop of their longstanding, historical animosity makes the fans a force that football officials cannot ignore. Their support for their clubs is no longer unwavering or unconditional. “We had Ahly and Zamalek against one another, we don't have that any more…we're just people," said a participant in a recent Annual Arab Youth Summit at the Library of Alexandria, articulating a perception among many Egyptians of a new era of common interest in which deep-seated football rivalries no longer define relationships.

Fan support for an effort by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to introduce financial austerity to cope with the economic fallout of the toppling of Mr. Mubarak has put them at odds with their clubs and star players who are resisting calls for a capping of transfer prices and salaries for coaches and players. “You're asking for millions and you don’t care about the poverty of Egyptians,” read a an Al Ahly fan banner displayed when their club played a friendly match against Harras El-Hodoud, the Premier League squad of the Egyptian Border Guards. Calls for social justice, a phrase rarely heard in the past in Egyptian football, now dominate Internet forums in which fans vent their anger.

The Yellow Dragons, the ultras of Premier League team Ismailia SC, threatened earlier this year to boycott their team’s matches if the club failed to cap players’ salaries. Their threat forced star midfielder Hosni Abd-Rabou to lower his sights in negotiations with Ismailia for a renewal of his contract. Abd-Rabou was reportedly demanding an unprecedented $850,000 in a country where half the population lives off $2 or less a day.

The introduction of transfer pricing and salary caps could transform Egypt, whose professional league is among the most competitive in the Middle East and Africa from a football player and coach importer into an exporter of talent with players and coaches seeking greener pastures abroad. The transformation would allow cash-starved Egyptian clubs to shore up their finances. “Players should be aware that the clubs’ current financial position is not healthy,” says Al Ahly marketing director Adli Al-Qaeyi, the architect of the club’s high-profile signings.

Resistance to the calls for austerity has deepened the clove between fans on the one hand and clubs, players and coaches on the other at a time that football institutions and personalities are increasingly embattled because of alleged support and ties to the former Mubarak regime, financial problems and accusations of corruption. Fan criticism mirrors demands directed by Egyptians against other pillars of the state and society.

The criticism cuts across the spectrum of Egyptian football and has wiped out perceptions during the revolt that Al Ahly in contrast to Al Zamalek had sought to align itself with the anti-Mubarak protesters by refusing to train and opposing Mubarak-backed proposals to revive professional league matches behind closed doors.

By contrast, Zamalek prided itself on maintaining its training schedule during the revolt, playing an African championship match in Nairobi and supporting a restricted lifting of the ban on domestic matches. Zamalek’s seemingly pro-Mubarak stance was reinforced by pro-Mubarak statements by two of its senior managers who also took part in demonstrations against the president’s distracters. They were joined in their support for Mubarak by Egyptian national coach Hassan Shehata.

The rift between Egyptian fans and clubs, managers and players is aggravated by the fact that a majority of players and coaches stayed on the side lines during the walk-up to Mr. Mubarak’s ousting. Another Al Ahly banner displayed by fans during the friendly against Harras El-Hodoud read: "We followed you everywhere but in the hard times we didn't find you."

Player and football manager attitudes towards the revolt in Egypt reflect a complex relationship of the ruled with the dictator that is evident across the Arab world. It is an attitude that cannot be reduced to vested economic interest or privilege but constitutes an expression of the dictator’s success in getting those he rules to internalize his positioning as the nation’s father. It is that rupture of the internalization articulated in statements of protesters that they had broken the fear barrier that constitutes the core of the Arab world’s newly found people power.

The internalization of the dictator as a father figure means that players and managers often support protesters’ demands for an end to corruption, greater transparency and more freedom, but object to the perceived indignity to which they see their leader or father as being subjected to. It is an attitude that resembles that of a child who defends his father irrespective of whether his father is right or wrong.

The absence of a majority of players from the anti-Mubarak protests sparked fan fury and has forced clubs and players to defend their positions in a bid to re-win fan support and fend off calls for resignations of key personnel. Fan protests forced the resignation of the chairman and three board members of Premier League team Ittihad Al-Skandarya.

Ibrahim Hassan, a Zamalek board member and his brother, former Zamalek coach Hossam Hassan were particular targets of fan ire because of their close ties to Mr. Mubarak and support for the ousted president. Hossam was attacked by fans while on his way to the club’s offices. Military police intervened to protect him. The Hassan brothers alongside former national coach Ibrahim Shehata were blacklisted by a popular Egyptian website because of the support for Mr. Mubarak.

Al Ahly football committee member Hadi Khashaba asserted that his club’s players had been impartial rather than pro-Mubarak. "Democracy means that every one of us has his own opinion. It's personal and we can't force a player to have a certain perspective. Most of Ahli's players were impartial and that was up to them," Khashaba said.

Fear of fan perception prompted Egyptian top tier, police-owned football club Ittihad El-Shorta (Police Union) to distance itself from Egypt’s hated police force, identified by many as a pillar of the regime of ousted Mubarak regime. The Egyptian police and security forces are widely blamed for the deaths of hundreds in the protests and for two days of violent attacks on the protesters by pro-Mubarak forces.

Club manager Talaat Youssef noted that in contrast to other clubs several of his players had joined the protests. “The team is independent from the Ministry of Interior; we’re a separate sports entity that has nothing to do with politics. So please there is no need to be hostile against our club,” Mr. Youssef said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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