The re-launch of the Egyptian Premier League has become a barometer for how President Mohammed Morsi is coping with key issues, including reform of the hated police and security forces and their role in the new Egypt, holding those responsible for the death of hundreds of protesters in the last two years accountable and rooting out corruption.
So far, the barometer shows a mixed record at best. Several attempts to restart the league suspended last February after 74 soccer fans were killed in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said have failed because of opposition by both the interior ministry which controls the security forces and militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened fans known for their fearlessness who played a key role in the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak and subsequent anti-government demonstrations.
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 Security Forces.
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 play ball.
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