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Egyptian law enforcement authorities and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) have extended a ban on spectators attending matches, in a reflection of fears that stadia in Egypt could once more emerge as platforms for anti-government protest. The ban had been in place for much of the last five years.
The decision dashed expectations that the ban would be lifted in February to coincide with a new competition season. It comes against the backdrop of repeated Egyptian poor performance in international tournaments, which many blame on the absence of fan support at matches.
Sports minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz justified the continued closure of Egyptian stadia using November’s jihadist attacks in Paris, as well as the cancellation of an international football match in Germany due to an alleged threat by Islamic State.
“There’s no need to be hurried on fans’ return, as the world is on the edge of a cliff,” Abdel-Aziz said.
Egypt has failed to suppress its own jihadist insurgency in the Sinai, which has also sparked a number of attacks in Cairo and other cities. The insurgency has been fuelled by the military’s brutal tactics as well as years of social and economic neglect of the Bedouin population in the north of the peninsula.
The decision to keep stadia closed constitutes a rejection of demands of some of the government’s key supporters in the business community, who had called for a reversal of the ban. “The absence of football fans is a failure for Egypt and the interior and youth ministries. People are bored with politics now, but they never bore of football. Fans must attend matches again, but without new incidents. Matches are boring without fans,” billionaire Naguib Sawiris said last month.
Authorities have struggled with multiple options to enhance security in stadia, including a possible replacement of Egypt’s hated security forces with private security firms—some of which are owned by retired military officers—and the introduction of security technology such as cameras and an electronic ticketing system.
If opening up stadia bears political risk, so does continued closure.
Disagreement over who would pay for enhanced security has complicated efforts to lift the ban, as have differences between the interior and the sports ministry. So has Turkey’s experience with electronic ticketing, which fans viewed as a way for the government to regain political control of stadia and identify dissenters. The Turkish attempt sparked a fan boycott that lead to a dramatic drop in match attendance.
The issue of spectator attendance has put the government of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah El Sisi in a bind. If opening up stadia bears political risk, so does continued closure. The rival, militant, well-organised, and street battle-hardened football fan groups of the storied Cairo clubs, Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC, insisted in a rare joint statement that the crowd ban be lifted immediately.
Deliberate or unwittingly lax imposition of stadium security measures by security forces have resulted in scores of deaths, twice in the past four years. In February 2012, 72 Al Ahly fans died in a politically loaded brawl in Port Said that had the hallmarks of security forces deliberately looking the other way. Three years later 20 Zamalek fans were killed in a stampede at a Cairo stadium as a result of poor crowd control. Football fans are on trial in a number of court cases related to the two incidents and other protests.
Both incidents highlighted an urgent need for security sector reform in Egypt. The interior ministry, which is responsible for police and security forces, has however so far successfully fended off calls for a thorough overhaul.
Al Ahly’s 'Ultras Ahlawy' and Zamalek’s 'Ultras White Knights' issued their statement after the two groups attended a handball match without incident. "Today, at Ahly's Abdullah bin Faisal court, fans decided to teach [authorities] an effective lesson. Everyone witnessed the largest fan bases in Egypt sitting only a few metres apart, and not a single problem occurred although there was no security," the two groups said on Facebook.
Thousands of hard-core Al Ahly and Al Zamalek supporters have for months attended their clubs’ training sessions, to demonstrate that it was not them but security forces that were responsible for repeated violent incidents.
The fans insisted in their statement that they were capable of handling security themselves. “Every time the fans take responsibility for their own safety, things go very smoothly…The fans trust themselves and their ability to organise themselves. It's not our fault that some parties are not able to carry out their duties," they said in a snide remark at security forces and the interior ministry.
The notion of fans handling their own security is anathema to a regime that allows for no uncontrolled public space. Moreover, jihadist targeting of stadia in France, Germany, Iraq and Nigeria gives the government a legitimate excuse, in an environment in which security forces are as much part of the solution as they are part of the problem.
Allowing fans to shoulder responsibility for security is also a no-go for the government given the ultras' key role in the 2011 popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and in most subsequent anti-government protests.
Militant football fans also formed the backbone of student protests against the government of Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who in 2013 staged a coup against Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected government.
Sisi has since then brutally suppressed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, as well as all other expressions of dissent. He squashed the student protests by arresting hundreds, if not thousands, and turning universities into security fortresses.
As one ultra said, “the ban on spectators is uniting rival fan groups. We have a common cause in fighting for our right to return to stadiums. This is an opportunity for the government to reach out to frustrated youth. They shouldn’t waste it.”