The verdict is certain to provoke protests by soccer fans irrespective of what
the court rules. Renewed eruption of street violence could thwart efforts by the
government and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to lift the year-old
suspension of Egyptian soccer in the first week of February.
The suspension was imposed in February of
last year after the 72 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC died
in a brawl at the end of a match against Al Masri SC in the Suez Canal
city of Port Said. The incident, the worst in Egyptian sporting history,
was widely seen as an effort that got out of hand to cut the ultras down
Egypt’s various ultras groups, one of the
country’s largest civic groups after the ruling Muslim Brotherhood,
played a key role in the toppling of Mubarak, opposition to the
subsequent military rulers who led Egypt to elections that were won by
the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, and resistance to Mr. Morsi’s recent
rushing through of a controversial constitution.
Ultras Ahlawy, the Cairo club’s militant
fan group, has vowed to prevent the resumption of professional soccer as
long as justice has not been served in the Port Said case. The ultras
have in recent months occupied the head office of the EFA on several
occasions, stormed the Al Ahli training ground, forced the freezing of
assets and imposition of a travel ban on Al Ahli chairman Hassan Hamdi
by the Illegal Gains Authority on charges of corruption and attacked the
premises of media organizations they deemed hostile.
During a mass demonstration last Friday on
Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Al Ahli ultras shouted “Retribution against the
leaders of the interior ministry and the military who masterminded the
(Port Said) plot is easy. Death is coming for both.”
Al Ahli ultras demonstrated this week in
Alexandria and Suez demanding revenge for the Port Said victims. “We
are giving the authorities a final warning. We know what to do if the
trial is manipulated,” Egypt
Independent quoted protest leader Mohamed Ali as saying.
Supporters of Al Ahli arch rival, Al
Zamalek SC, protested separately in Alexandria against the arrest of one
of their members, 14-year old Omar Hisham. Mr. Hisham was detained this
weekend during demonstration in front of the Alexandria court house
against the decision of judges to resign a day before pronouncing
verdict against police officers charged with killing protesters during
the anti-Mubarak protests two years ago.
Similar protests were also organized
Monday evening in front of the Suez Governorate headquarters, after
dozens of Ultras marched the streets of the city. They demanded revenge
for the Port Said martyrs. Security forces intensified their presence
around the building.
The risk of violence is enhanced by the
fact that even if the Cairo court rules in favor of Al Ahli, the verdict
is unlikely to meet conditions the fans have set for a resumption of
Egyptian soccer. The ultras have demanded in addition to serving justice
that the police and security forces, their nemesis and the most despised
institutions in Egypt because of their role in enforcing the repression
of the Mubarak government, be exempted from responsibility for security
in stadiums; the police and security forces be thoroughly reformed;
Mubarak era officials be removed from soccer boards and an end to
corruption in the sport.
The fans are also unhappy with the
conditions on which the EFA earlier this month agreed with the ministers
of interior and sport to resume professional soccer in February. In
particular, the fans reject the exclusion of the public from initial
matches at the behest of the interior ministry which is in charge of the
police and security forces. The ministry insisted that fans be excluded
because it fears that clashes with the militants would further tarnish
the image of the police and the security forces.
Port Said has twice this month had a
foretaste of expected violence in the wake of a court ruling. Thousands
of Al-Masri fans besieged the Port Said stadium this week in protest of
authorities' plans to transfer the defendants to Cairo for the verdict.
In response, authorities backed down and announced that the suspects
would not be present in the court when it announces its verdict. Clashes
erupted earlier this month in Port Said between supporters of Al Masri
and Al Ahli in which 55 people were wounded.
The head of Port Said’s Lawyers Syndicate,
Safwat Abdel Halim, said the union had requested security for 46 lawyers
representing the defendants in the Port Said case because they had been
threatened by Al Ahli militants.
“We have written our wills and will fight
for the rights of our comrades," said a member of Al Masri supporters,
Ultras Green Eagles.
[James M. Dorsey is a
senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture,
and the author of The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog]