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Cairo disaster further distances Egyptian state from its youth

By James M. Dorsey

The death of at least 40 highly politicised and battle-hardened Egyptian football fans raises the stakes for the efforts of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to suppress dissent.

The incident is one of the worst in Egyptian sporting history and the latest in a number of mass killings involving security forces since Sisi overthrew Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, in a military coup in 2013.

In some ways it resembled the politically loaded brawl in Port Said three years ago in which 74 fans died. It is also likely to re-energise Egypt’s growing ‘ultras’ movement. Inspired by European football ‘firms’, the ultras played a key role in toppling president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They formed street-fighting units during the subsequent protests against his military successors, while they have taken stances against Morsi – a member of the since outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – and his successor Sisi.

Like in Port Said, many of the fans in Cairo died of suffocation in a stampede. This crush occurred when police used tear gas to stop members of Zamalek’s ‘Ultras White Knights’ (UWK) from forcing their way into Cairo’s Air Defence Stadium, where their storied Cairo team was playing a Egyptian Premier League match against ENPPI.

The incident refocused attention on stadia as a major flashpoint of opposition to successive Egyptian governments.

Other potential football-related flashpoints are expected to emerge in the coming weeks, including legal efforts to outlaw the UWK, the pending appeal against death sentences for 21 fans of Port Said’s Al Masri and lengthy prison sentences for others on charges relating to that disaster.

This weekend’s deaths dashed hopes that Sisi may adopt a less brutal approach to opponents in civil society, with over 1000 killed, scores injured and many sentenced to death, although none have actually been executed.

Hopes of a less hardline approach emerged in early December when Ultras Ahlawy stormed a Cairo stadium in advance of an African Confederation Cup final, in rejection of a call by the interior ministry that they cooperate to ensure victory. The appeal was designed to pave the way for the lifting of the ban on spectator attendance.

Rather than confronting the Ahly ultras, security forces negotiated their departure from the stadium as well as their attendance of the match under a temporary lifting of the spectator ban. The game earned Ahly a trophy. Ultras Ahlawy unfolded a huge banner during the match that, referring to the ban, asserted “Football is for Fans”. In a statement to its 1.1 million Facebook followers, Ahlawy warned that “fans have every right to be present in stadiums and cheer on their teams ... we will no longer watch our team on television."

But tensions could rise further if the government uses this latest incident to re-impose the ban on spectators. The State, in response to the Cairo incident, has already suspended all Premier League matches.

Mubarak did not tolerate uncontrolled public space, which propelled politicised, well-organised, street battle-hardened fans and students to the forefront of anti-government protest. History threatens to repeat itself under Sisi despite the president’s acknowledgement of the State’s failure to reach out to the under-25s who account for half of population.

Sisi has promised to correct the situation by creating a National Youth Council, increasing opportunities for young Egyptians’ participation in politics, and enhancing scholarship openings for study overseas. At the same time, the president warned students from engaging in activity “with questionable political goals that serve the interests of
unpatriotic groups in their endeavour to destroy the nation”.

The president’s warning appears to have fallen on deaf ears, with a large number of youths putting little faith in his promises. The death of dozens of fans this weekend was the latest indication of the president’s failure to convince his detractors of his sincerity.

The full, unedited version of this article appears on James M. Dorsey’s blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg.