Officials of Mr. Morsi’s
government have so far unsuccessfully pushed for a resumption of professional
soccer with the attendance of fans who played a key role in the toppling of Mr.
Mubarak. The officials as well as the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) are
calling for the Premier League to kick off on September 16, but have yet to get
interior ministry approval. The ministry this week agreed however to allow the
Super Cup final between crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC and ENPPI to be played on
September 8 behind closed doors and to admit some fans to an African
Championship League match between Al Ahly arch rival Al Zamalek SC and Ghana’s
The military, the interior ministry,
government officials, soccer executives and militant soccer fans
have in recent weeks been locked in a complex dance focused on the
security authorities’ refusal to lift the ban imposed in the
aftermath of the death of 74 fans in February in a politically
loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
Egypt’s military rulers are employing
the security-inspired sustained ban on soccer as a tool to undermine
radical, highly-politicized and street battle-hardened soccer fans
who emerged as the North African country’s most militant opponents
of the armed force’s grip on politics and proponents of security
service reform in the walk-up to Mr. Morsi's presidency.
Their concern has been reinforced by
last week's clash in Tunisia between security forces and soccer fans
in which 22 policemen were injured that followed the throwing of
smoke bombs and the storming of the pitch by fans of Etoile Sportive
du Sahel unhappy with their team’s poor performance against
Esperance Sportive du Tunis. The incident has sparked calls for the
banning of Tunisian fans from soccer matches.
The Egyptian effort to side line
soccer as a national past time is in stark contrast to ousted
President Hosni Mubarak’s use of the game to enhance his image and
distract public attention from politics. It also counters Mr. Morsi,
who has vowed to free soccer and sports in general from corruption
and political interference and sees the resumption of professional
soccer as a sign of Egypt's return to normalcy after 18 months of
The government recently installed a
new EFA board tasked with organizing within 60 days elections in the
soccer body. Three competing lists – members of the Mubarak-era
board, Islamist players and independent reformers – are campaigning
for the election.
The interior ministry has so far
refused to lift the ban on soccer imposed in the wake of the Port
Said incident as long as enhanced security, including electronic
gates, airport-style scanners and security cameras have not been
installed in Egyptian stadiums.
While not unreasonable, the demand
ignores the fact that security forces stood aside during the brawl
in Port Said in what was widely believed to be an effort to teach a
lesson to the militant soccer fans that got out of hand. It also
fails to take account of the fact that the military and the
government have refrained from reforming the interior ministry and
its security forces.
That is not going unnoticed in a
post-revolt environment in which the public is no longer distracted
from politics. Media focus on Mr. Morsi rather than soccer contrasts
starkly with the Mubarak era when, for example, the media at the
regime’s behest focused on the beautiful game rather than the
sinking of a ferry in which 1,100 people died. Public sentiment at
the time blamed government corruption for their deaths.
“The balance is being reset,” Egypt
Independent recently quoted American University of Cairo political
scientist Emad Shahin as saying.
As a result, the debate about soccer
is as much about politics as it is about sports. It is a debate that
is likely to be fought out politically rather than on the pitch.
However, failure to resolve the issue politically risks fans
demanding reinstitution of soccer and their right to attend matches
on the street rather than at the negotiating table.
M Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in
Singapore and the author of the blog, The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.]