Football, religion and politics in Egypt

As Egypt’s military-backed regime moves to further consolidate its power, no spheres of civil society are free of state encroachment. Leila Zaki Chakravarti analyses the intricate relationships between football, religion and politics in the settling of political scores in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Leila Zaki Chakravarti
20 February 2014

Sports Minister seeks soothsayer’s guidance over war on Government and football” ran the eye-catching headline for an item appearing in the Egyptian press in early February. The article described how the Minister of Sport in the interim Government set up by the Egyptian Military, following their 30th June 2013 overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood Government of President Mohamed Morsi, had been spotted visiting a provincial divine best known as the “go to” soothsayer for film and media stars in need of religiously endorsed tips on their career and lifestyle choices. The incident, and the events leading up to it, provides a vivid instance of how football and religion have long been among the few available outlets in Egypt for the expression of political dissent and challenge – and how football, politics and religion remain intricately intertwined in the emerging narrative of the 2011 uprising and its aftermath.

In July 2013 Taher Abu Zeid’s appointment as Minister of Sport was publicly acclaimed as a shining instance of the new Military authorities’ self-declared aims of  istiqrar (“stability” ie ending the incompetence and chaos of Morsi’s Egypt) and tat-hir (“purification” ie rooting out corruption and criminality in public institutions). Abu Zeid is nationally renowned as a footballer who played in the famous red shirt of El Ahly (the country’s premier football club) in Egypt’s footballing glory days of the 90s. Widely respected by the fans as min ahl il karr (“amongst the most skilled of master craftsmen” – a term drawn from the guild system), he was seen as a thoroughbred professional who would restore organisation and purpose to the national game. In disarray since the suspension of the league following the massacre of 72 Ahlawi’s (El Ahly fans) during an away match in Port Said in early 2012, Egyptian football reached its nadir in November 2013 when the country’s national team was thrashed 6-1 by Ghana in a World Cup qualifier. Days of soul-searching followed, during which TV pundits, commentators and fans debated the reasons for this unprecedented humiliation for a “nation of football lovers”. Immediate causes were readily associated with Egypt’s zuruf istith-na’iyya (“special circumstances”), a set phrase referring to the military’s move against the Brotherhood’s protest camps. But also brought into the open were long-standing concerns over deeper underlying factors, including in particular the hugely unequal division of resources between a few richly-endowed clubs which won everything, and the crumbling infrastructure and struggling players of rest of the country’s 1,200 clubs. 

It was nevertheless something of a bombshell when, in January 2014, the reformist Minister of Sport issued a Ministerial Decree disbanding the Board of the El Ahly (National) Sporting Club, the most long-established, renowned, powerful, and richly-resourced of all Egypt’s football clubs, and appointing his own nominees as Chair and Deputy. Of the reasons given, the most readily linked to tat-hir (“purification”) were the allegations of financial misdemeanours and corruption. These included the Board’s refusal to participate in an officially brokered all-League media rights contract with Egypt’s state-owned broadcaster, which was clearly designed to help rescue financially troubled clubs lower down the order through a more equitable distribution of financial rewards. The El Ahly Board had instead signed its own more lucrative media rights contract with an independent satellite station.  And the way in which the drive for istiqrar (“stability”) had morphed into harb did il-irhab  (“war on terror” – the phrase plastered all over the country’s TV screens following the August 2013 military clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood) was illustrated by the supplementary charge that the El Ahly Board had failed to take action against Brotherhood members infiltrating the club “against the will of Egyptians shown on 30 June”.  Recent instances cited included ways in which El Ahly players had “challenged the feelings of Egyptians, mixed sport with politics, and shown the Rabaa sign at an international event” - this last a reference to the much publicised way in which an Al Ahly player celebrated scoring a goal in an international club fixture by making the four-fingered salute adopted by defiant Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Back-on-yellow four-finger salute sign alongside footballer making the sign

Ahmed Abdel Zaher of El Ahly makes the Rabaa sign

The more general charge of “mixing sport with politics” was also widely understood as the new regime’s way of getting its own back on the club’s notorious altraz (“ultras”). These “extreme” football fans, about whom I have written previously, had been in the vanguard of the initial revolution of January 2011. They had also been a raucous part of the street marches marking its third anniversary in January 2014, loudly denouncing both the Muslim Brotherhood government and its military-backed replacement. As one “ultra” was quoted as saying:

“We removed Mubarak, but not the system that is still in place. We will not stop until we achieve the goals of the January 25 revolution: bread, freedom and social justice.”

Street demonstration and graffiti

Ahlawi (=) Revolutionary. Photo (c) Author

The Sports Minister’s move was rapidly trumped when, less than 24 hours later, the interim Prime Minister issued an order freezing the Decree and then, a few days later, an ostensibly independent Court sentenced Taher Abu Zeid to a year in prison for “declining to execute a judicial verdict” in a separate case. It was this conundrum which had driven the beleaguered Minister to seek guidance from the celebrity divine blessed with baseera (religiously inspired insight) into what the future might hold – and reportedly led to his eventual decision not to resign, but to remain in office and “patiently” await developments. The standoff was complete when the El Ahly Board also refused to resign, ignored the Minister’s nominees, and instead pressed on with organising their own internal Board elections.

The El Ahly Board’s response to the Minister’s decree is in line with the Club’s constitutional arrangements, history and values. The club was founded in 1907 as part of the first anti-colonialist stirrings of nationalism amongst Egypt’s newly emerging urban middle classes. From the start, the Club’s moral compass was set towards the principle of social inclusion through sport, so that young and promising athletes from all segments of society could, through strict and regimented training, be turned into champions “for Club and country”. Its strict code of silence in settling its internal affairs behind closed doors is legitimised by the open elections the club runs every four years, through which the membership-at-large elects the Board. This practice of participatory politics, with lengthy and fiercely contested election campaigns by a wide range of candidates, has led observers over the years to point to the El Ahly elections as “the only real democracy” in Egypt – in contrast to the stitch-ups, corruption and violence of the “elections” staged during the Mubarak years. In many senses El Ahly, and the other ‘social’ sporting clubs which have since modelled themselves on it - the term ‘social’ is used to distinguish these fee-paying, membership-based football clubs from others set up by the State eg the Army or Police, or rich private companies eg Arab Contractors -  form the strongest pillar of ‘civil society’ in modern Egypt.

The Minister’s attack on the club – and the club’s response - shows how, three years into the uprisings, the sites for public protest and contestation have moved away from the streets and squares, and into institutions. El Ahly’s well-established traditions and values of social inclusion have been directly challenged by the new military-supported Government, claiming that modern Egyptian society has no place for supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or other so-called “terrorists”. At a deeper level, the attack can also be understood as part of a campaign by the new regime to stigmatise and criminalise any potential alternatives or rival power bases. That the game is not yet over can be seen from the artful manner in which the embattled El Ahly Board has declared its actions to be wholly within the “spirit and text” of Egypt’s new military-approved Constitution, which, among other things, declares robustly (Article 75) that: 

“Citizens have the right to form non-governmental organizations and institutions on a democratic basis...They shall be allowed to engage in activities freely. Administrative agencies shall not interfere in the affairs of such organisations, dissolve them, their board of directors, or their board of trustees except by a judicial ruling.”

The general mood of uncertainty and foreboding was however well captured by a sports journalist participating in a late night talk show on one of Egypt’s private TV channels:

"There is the general taken-for-granted assumption that there is a power in this country that does not accept anyone to tread on its territory or come too close to its private dealings…Part of this is security related. (Laughing) We don’t dare cough when reporting a match, and can’t scribble in our notebooks without wondering if we have first to clear it with security, or if they are watching us.(In a more sombre voice) I don’t see institutions as real any more. They appear silhouettes, unfinished projects on paper. The state has turned into a confederation of tribes. Some tribes are stronger and keep predators at bay, while other tribes are preyed upon like il katkut il yatim (orphaned chicks). It is extremely sad to see Egypt going this way after two revolutions."

If the imminent ascension to the Presidency of the newly promoted Field Marshal Sisi (the General who commanded the military at the time of the overthrow of the Morsi Government) represents some kind of ‘full time whistle’, then it appears that the contest between the state and at least some civil organisations is likely to go into extra time.

This artice is the fourth in a series of articles by the author analysing the politics of football in Egypt.

Read Football and the game of politics in Egypt, Performing masculinity: the football ultra in post revolutionary Egypt, and A tale of two cities: blood football and politics in Egypt 


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