In its latest statement, the
Egyptian Football Association (EFA) said this week that the league would
start on February 1, exactly a year after it was suspended and the first
anniversary of the Port Said incident. Earlier attempts to re-launch the
league on September 17, October 17 and December 17 failed. The EFA said
the February 1 date had been agreed upon in a meeting with the ministers
of interior and sport. It said that the two ministries felt that
restarting the tournament in February would be "positive for the
economy, the sport" and would signify stability.
Militant fans may however
reject the terms of the resumption, which in turn potentially could lead
to clashes with security forces when the first matches are played. The
EFA said the first round of the league would be played behind closed
doors. Sources said the interior minister who controls the police and
security forces had insisted on the exclusion of the fans. "The EFA and
the clubs' managements should reach out to fans in order to avoid unrest
inside and outside the stadiums," the soccer association said.
The interior 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, the most despised institutions in Egypt because of their role as
the enforcers of the repression of the Mubarak regime.
For their part, militant
supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC, who were largely the
victims of the Port Said incident, have vowed to prevent the resumption
of the league as long as justice has not been served for their dead
brethren, security forces and police retain responsibility for security
in stadiums and the law enforcement agencies have not been reformed.
None of those demands are
addressed in the agreement between the EFA and the interior and sport
ministers. The EFA and the ministers hope however that a verdict
scheduled for January 26 in the slow-moving trial against 73 people,
including nine mid-level security officials, charged with responsibility
for the Port Said incident, will placate the fans.
Even if the fans were to
accept the verdict as having served justice, they are unlikely to take
kindly to their exclusion from the matches. The verdict moreover would
not address the deep-seated hostility between the police and security
forces and the fans, one of Egypt’s largest civic groups that evolved in
years of bitter clashes in the stadiums in the last four years of the
Mubarak regime and was reinforced by the interior ministry’s heavy hand
in the popular neighbourhoods of Egyptian towns and cities.
Much of the post-Mubarak
violence stems from clashes between the militants and security forces.
Their battle is a battle for karama or dignity. Their dignity is vested
in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya or interior ministry, the
knowledge that they no longer can be abused by security forces without
recourse and the fact that they no longer have to pay off each and every
policemen to stay out of trouble.
That dignity is unlikely to
be fully restored until the police and security forces have been
reformed – a task Mr. Morsi’s government has so far largely shied away
from. Official foot-dragging in holding security officers accountable as
in the case of Port Said and the deaths of hundreds of protesters in the
last two years reinforces the perception of the police and security
forces as an institution that in the words of scholars Eduardo P.
Archetti and Romero Amilcar is “exclusively destined to harm, wound,
injure, or, in some cases, kill other persons.” It gives “police
power…the aura of omnipotence” who “at the same time lost all legitimacy
both in moral and social terms… To resist and to attack the police force
is thus seen as morally justified,” they argue.
Reforming the police however
is no mean task and is likely to prove far more difficult than Mr.
Morsi’s taming of the military last summer by sidelining the country’s
two most senior military commanders with the help of the next echelon of
officers. Reform will have to mean changing from top to bottom the
culture of a force that is larger than the military and counts 450,000
policemen and 350,000 members of the General Security and Central
The political struggles over
justice and dignity being fought out on the back of soccer have scarred
the sport. Relations between fans and players, strained at the best of
times because of fan perceptions of players as mercenaries who play for
the highest bidder and who largely aligned themselves with the Mubarak
regime, have become even more tense. Fans and players have clashed
several times in recent months with players concerned that financially
strapped clubs will not be able to pay their salaries and that the
pre-longed suspension is affecting their performance.
Joran Viera, coach of Al
Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek SC told a paper in the United Arab Emirates
this weekend that he was quitting because of the suspension. “I will not
stay at Zamalek, I’m leaving. I will return to Cairo on Saturday to put
the finishing touches on my resignation. There is no league and I’m a
professional coach who doesn’t work just to earn money. They keep saying
the league will start but nothing happens ... there is a problem between
the Egyptian Football Association and the interior ministry, which does
not want to secure the games,” Mr. Viera was quoted as saying.
The EFA and the interior and
sport ministers appear to have now compromised at the expense of the
game’s fans. The fans however have yet to indicate whether they will
[James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies and the author of The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog]