Soccer and Politics in Egypt

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Last Wednesday in Port Said, 74 Egyptians were killed in a riot that began on the soccer pitch — barely a week after the one year anniversary of the January 25 protests that toppled the Mubarak regime. Since then, what begin as animosity between groups of soccer fans has taken on a political life of its own.  Distrustful of Egypt’s new rulers, young soccer fans — many of whom participated in last year’s demonstrations in Tahrir Square — see the botched handling of the Port Said riot as one more reason to be distrustful of the motives of the government. On the other hand, the current military-backed regime in Egypt sees the violence as a justification for the strict law-and-order measures they have advocated all along.

According to the Lebanese Daily Star editorial, “what happened on the football field of Egypt’s Port Said city Wednesday had nothing to do with the game that had just been played. Rather, the clashes that led to the deaths of 74 people and left 1,000 injured were born of frustration, and were an attempt to send a message to those who have assumed authority in Egypt. The events were a reflection of the despair and the loss of hope and inspiration felt by the youth of Egypt during the country’s revolution a year ago….The latest protests in Egypt were all aimed at some of the actions of the military. Now they have escalated, leading to calls for Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi to resign.”

In a statement released on its website Ikhanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood suggests: “[T]here is a hidden plot behind the massacre, which had no justification. Also, failure of the police to protect the citizens cannot be simply described as neglect or default….we fear that some police officers aim to punish the Egyptian people for the revolution, for banishing their tyranny over the people, and cutting down their privileges….We warn officials of attempts to destroy Egypt or burn and demolish its institutions, a theory espoused by some. We therefore call for firmness in applying the law to everyone, without bias or partiality, and without regard to domestic or foreign pressures. Security is just as essential basic a need for life as food and drink.”

Likewise, in its own editorial, Gulf Times expressed concern about the erosion of trust between the general population and the country’s security forces: “[T]he security forces’ handling of the riots has led to suspicion and distrust among the wider population, with many believing the violence at the football to have been provoked for political reasons. Some politicians have claimed that the violence was instigated by military forces to show that tight security measures providing them with more power are necessary….Commentators have suggested that the lack of control since the revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is the cause of the violence, with police unable to perform their jobs adequately following the collapse of a regime in which they traditionally used unnecessary force and violence.”

There are some who see the government’s handling of the soccer riots as symptomatic of a broader trend toward a lack of concern for public safety. For example, in an op-ed for The National, Maria Golia accuses the authorities of being “criminally inept at crowd control and crisis management long predating the current unrest….Egypt’s authorities have never bothered about public safety. Most public facilities lack sufficient exits and fire extinguishers. Building codes are circumvented with baksheesh, or bribes….Perhaps the most telling aspect of this disregard for public welfare is that it has gone uncontested for so long….On Thursday night, protesters dismantled the concrete block walls the military had erected on Mohammed Mahmoud Street feeding into Tahrir. It had a fine metaphorical resonance, people tearing down the obstacles to freedom installed by their latest oppressors.”

Others tie the Port Said events to the ongoing power struggle. As Al Hayat’s Abdullah Iskandar writes, “Egypt is still erratically trying to find its way, between an elected parliament…and a power structure the instruments of which continue to function despite the fall of major symbolic figures of the former regime….[T]here is a connection between what Cairo has been witnessing, in terms of demonstrations, protests and clashes with the police, and the massacre that took place in Port Said on a football field….[T]here are those in Egypt who consider that their victory in parliamentary elections gives them the right to monopolize security…if this were to require adopting militia-like methods reminiscent of those of the baltagia (hired thugs) employed by the former regime.”

Iskandar’s statement about the increasing power of the Islamist parties is borne out by the recent “Islamist takeover at the People’s Assembly,” as Al Ahram’s Gamal Essam El-Din puts it: “The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Nour Party…have clinched leading posts in 15 of the 19 committees in the new People’s Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian parliament….Some 12 Freedom and Justice Party MPs were elected the chairs of committees, with Essam El-Erian, deputy chair of the party, being elected chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Saad El-Husseini, a member of the Brotherhoods Guidance Office and a former MP, chair of the Budget and Planning Committee, and retired major-general Abbas Mikhimar chair of the influential Defence and National Security Committee.”

Not everyone is sanguine, however, about the current jostling for power or the rise of the Islamists. According to a Khaleej Times editorial, “The military junta is in a fix….The debate in the echelons of power is how to deal with an assertive parliament that has returned with a heavy mandate for the Islamists. At the same time, there is no dearth of elements and power disciples, in and out of the assembly, who will not let Egypt sail towards an orthodoxy. This equilibrium swing among extremes is in need of a dialogue process….The new Egypt that has been born on the Tahrir has to go through a complete evolutionary circle. This sordid tale of argument in carving the new power decorum has to come to an end.”

Still, it is unclear that the young activists on the streets are ready to give up their demands. The latest twist, in what has become an ever evolving strategy of confronting the regime, has come as “Army loyalists and activists battle on the walls of Cairo.” In an op-ed for the Egyptian daily The Independent, Soraya Morayef writes, “The graffiti war, a showdown between revolutionary street artists and a fanatical nationalist team who whitewash their work, is a new and disturbing manifestation of pro-Army popular sentiment….Graffiti has spread like wildfire throughout Cairo in the past 12 months….In the face of the mainstream media’s campaign to tarnish protesters as criminals and cover up military crimes, many activists have turned to graffiti as an alternative means of reaching the average Egyptian on the streets.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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