What do you think of when you think of Egyptian football?
It is impossible not think of the young Liverpool striker who took the world by storm when he joined Liverpool two years ago. The 26-year-old Egyptian national scored 32 goals and won the Golden Boot in his first year with the club and has continued his success into his second year. During the 2018 World Cup, football fans from around the world found themselves invested in his success, and thus, the success of the Egyptian national team, who qualified for their first World Cup tournament since 1990.
But before the success of Salah, a different image came to mind of Egyptian football. It was an image of violence and empty stadiums. At the forefront is a memory of the 2012 football riots that left 72 people dead and over 500 injured at Port Said Stadium. It was the deadliest football riot in the last 20 years and caused the government to close stadiums to fans for over five years.
In Egypt, being a football fan is about more than what happens on the pitch. Since before the days of the revolution, the die-hard supporters’ groups known as Ultras had a political role to play in the Egyptian landscape. Before the revolution, Mubarak maintained a tight control on civic groups. So, people turned to football. By 2007, the Ultras of Al-Ahly were organizing events at home and away matches. They maintained strict stadium etiquette, while using inspirational banners and flares to get the Egyptian government’s attention.
The Ultras played a critical role in the revolution that ultimately took down Hosni Mubarak. But the forces who would replace the dictator were no more friendly to football supporters.
After the riots in 2012, the Ultras became even more political. There were questions about government culpability. People demanded retrials for those responsible for the deaths of their football comrades. Eventually, they stormed the Football Federation and burned the Police Office. By the time el-Sisi became President, the Ultras were a solid thorn in the government’s side.
The el-Sisi government responded by labeling Ultras as terrorist groups in 2015. This destroyed their legitimacy as an opposition group and gave the government permission to imprison anyone associated with them. In 2017, the government arrested over 200 fans they accused of rioting at a game against the Libyan-side Al Alhi SC. They were detained for nearly six months, and some of them were held even longer. They were accused of being members of the Ultras White Knights.
Today, Egypt has an ongoing prison crisis. The el-Sisi government arrests anyone who disagrees with them, including football fans, and those inmates are being recruited to join ISIS with the promise of revenge against the Egyptian government. The guise of Ultras as terrorists allows the Egyptian government to arrest any young man associated with a football club. And all the while, FIFA and other soccer governing bodies are eerily silent.
Fans are one aspect to the politicization of Egyptian football, but they are not the only one. In January 2018, the Egyptian Football Association held a press conference to announce their unwavering support for el-Sisi ahead of the upcoming presidential elections. In addition to federation officials, the press conference included the presidents of various clubs. Mahmoud el-Khatib, President of Al-Ahly and one of the most famous African footballers of all time, was present. The men stood in front of a banner that said, in part, that the “Egyptian Football Association backs and supports president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to lead the country through continuous achievements.”
It should have been enough to get Egypt suspended from FIFA and kicked out of the World Cup. But in an era where Russia and Qatar are hosting World Cup festivities, it was no surprise that FIFA remained relatively quiet on this issue too.
Mortada Mansour, the owner of Zamalek football club, had initially intended to run against el-Sisi in the presidential elections. But when other opponents disappeared, had their offices raided, and were arrested, Mansour decided to drop out. In a matter of weeks, el-Sisi managed to successfully intimidate all of his opponents, ensuring a smooth re-election.
Of course, a story of this nature would not be complete without a caveat from the Saudi government. Turki al-Sheikh, a close confident of crown prince Mohammed bin-Salman, was appointed an honorary president of Egypt’s largest club, Al-Ahly, in 2018. When fans and officials had a hostile reaction to his investment, al-Sheikh bought the rival club El-Assuilti FC and rebranded it as Pyramids FC.
He has recruited South American talent, hired an Argentine coach, and even has former Chelsea player John Terry doing commentary on the club-affiliated TV channel. Pyramids FC has done quite well on the pitch as well, angering rival clubs who believe al-Sheikh’s team is getting special treatment.
The governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not yet publicly commented on al-Sheikh’s actions. Saudi Arabia is one of Egypt’s chief economic backers, so like the other issues discussed in this article, most people expect fears over al-Sheikh’s actions to fall on deaf ears.
Not enough people are talking about these issues. Football fans are disappearing, their own federation and clubs are being used as political pawns in the most blatant way possible, and yet most of the footballing world remains eerily silent. I can’t tell you that you should care about what is happening in Egypt; but it should be alarming to anyone who values this sport.
We can’t rely on FIFA to do something. But we can call them out for their inaction. We can let people know what is going on in the dark streets of dictatorship. We can stand with the people of Egypt, for whom football has become both a tool for justice and a weapon of oppression.
ALLISON CARY @FindingAllison