Seven months after a ban on domestic football was implemented in Egypt, the country’s Ministry of Sport has announced that the Premier League will return on 17 September.
The ban was put in place after Egypt’s worst ever football violence left 74 people dead. It happened at Port Said after Cairo club Al-Ahly lost 3-1 to local team Al-Masry and fans stormed the pitch, chasing and attacking players. Most deaths were caused by the stampede, and television cameras captured riot police doing little to stem the violence.
It was the worst football-related incident worldwide since 1996, but more than that, many saw it as a sign of Egypt’s deteriorating security situation. It took place nearly a year after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, but before the transfer to civilian rule was completed. The military was controlling the country and the Muslim Brotherhood (which has since been elected to government) accused the military and police of being complicit in the violence. Essam el-Erian, vice-chairman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, alleged at the time that the military wanted to show that recently abolished emergency regulations, which gave security forces wide-ranging powers, must be maintained in order to handle crime. “This tragedy is a result of intentional reluctance by the military and the police,” he said.
While it was not proved that it was a deliberate policy, footage did show riot police standing by as fans stormed the pitch. Some commentators suggested that the police force, trained to behave with brutal force under Mubarak’s rule, did not know how to behave once such violence was deemed officially unacceptable. Others argued that defeating the police was a symbol of fans’ animosity towards the security forces after years of humiliation and abuse.
So does the resumption of the Premier League mean that these security issues have been resolved? Well, not necessarily. Announcing that the League would restart, Sports Minister Al Amry Farouk said that the games would be played behind closed doors in the first instance: “Without fans for the time being and then we’ll see – that’s our agreement with security officials.” It has also been agreed that Al-Masry – the team playing in the home match that sparked the violence – will not take part this season. Playing without fans is not without precedent. Since the riot at Port Said, all matches played in Egypt – some continental club games, and qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup – have been played with no crowds present.
Football matches in Egypt have a long history of being politicised, with Mubarak using national matches to shore up patriotic support. Conversely, opposition supporters used the rare opportunity of a crowd to stir up anti-government sentiment. Wikileaks cables from 2009 show the US ambassador commenting on both trends. Perhaps conscious of the potential benefits to government of a successful football league, Mohammed Morsi’s government has tried several times to resume the Premier League. The Ministry of the Interior turned down proposals for it to return on 24 August and 7 September.
While people in Egypt are generally supportive of the civilian government, the security forces have not been reformed and animosity towards them remains. If, indeed, the Port Said tragedy was inspired by hatred of the police, then the risk of further rioting will remain high unless some serious changes are made. The government and security forces will be hoping that resuming matches but keeping the crowds away will separate the game from politics. Whether this is enough for Egypt’s football fans remains to be seen.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.