Egyptian soccer fans are still barred from attending league matches because of deadly clashes at some events in the past few years. However, Minister of Youth and Sports Khaled Abdel Aziz seems optimistic that the ban could be lifted before too long.
His hope might be buoyed by the government's recent decision to emphasize the potential for sports tourism, in a bid to boost the ailing economy, or perhaps he is encouraged by parliament's consideration of a proposed law designed to regulate fan attendance and introduce harsher punishments for those arrested at soccer games.
Under the potential law, anyone who tries to storm or enter events by force would be sentenced to prison or fined no less than 500 Egyptian pounds ($26), or both. The penalty would be doubled for those who commit acts of violence. The same penalties would be applied against those who commit similar acts against security forces. The bill also would punish fans who possess flares or fireworks.
The government imposed the ban in the wake of deadly clashes in 2012 at the Port Said stadium. More than 70 Al-Ahly club fans were killed in post-match riots. After that tragedy, league matches were played in empty stadiums.
The government partially lifted the audience ban, but just weeks later, in February 2015, it was restored following bloody clashes between security forces and Al-Zamalek SC club supporters as they were entering Cairo's Air Defense stadium. Around 20 Zamalek fans died after being suffocated or crushed in a stampede. Security forces said ticketless Zamalek fans had tried to enter the stadium by force — a claim fans denied.
Since then, attendance at games has been highly restricted. Only minimal numbers of supporters have been allowed to attend the matches of Egypt's national team in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, as well as the continental matches of Egyptian teams.
Egypt is plagued by groups of hardcore fans, called Ultras, known for violent behavior at matches. Egypt has even designated some as terrorist groups. Two of the largest groups have combined memberships of almost 2 million.
Some moderate soccer fans blame the security forces for clashes. Egypt's two most popular soccer sporting clubs, Al-Ahly SC and Zamalek, played a vital role in the January 25 Revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Since then, fan groups and security forces have clashed multiple times. Some fans see security efforts as attempts to oppress them and undermine their activities.
Reda el-Beltagy, a senior member of parliament's Youth and Sports Committee, told Al-Monitor safety must be a priority before large numbers of fans can return to stadiums.
"There have been positive indicators that soccer supporters are to be allowed to attend the premier league matches in the upcoming period. But, unfortunately, the fans' attitude after the recent friendly match between Egypt's national team and Tunisia has compounded the problem," Beltagy said, referring to clashes that arose Jan. 8 when some members of Zamalek's fan group reportedly threw stadium chairs at the security forces.
And so, Beltagy said, the ban must be extended, even though it ties up security forces that are needed elsewhere.
"It is more important to think of our martyrs and soldiers who have been killed in Sinai [Peninsula]. Protecting the country's borders is the top priority. The efforts of security forces should not be dispersed in clashes with soccer fans," he said.
Gamal Holayel, a top sports critic, also told Al-Monitor that it is too soon to lift the ban.
"Under current situations, it is impossible to allow soccer fans to attend the league matches," he said. "There must be flawless security plans set by both the Interior Ministry and the Sports Ministry before lifting the ban. Otherwise, grave consequences are expected."
Holayel added, "Sporting clubs should also positively participate. I think that involving soccer fans in securing matches will be more effective. The clubs should form committees that include members of the club and fan groups. This committee is to be charged with securing and controlling matches along with police forces. In this way, if any riot occurs they will bear the responsibility."
Mohsen Hefzy, a security expert and former assistant interior minister, emphasized the ministry is the only entity that can determine when it's time to lift the ban on the most popular sport in Egypt. He said the accuracy of inspection procedures is a main issue. "Remote inspection is also essential," he said.
"Once the ministry becomes able to ensure this, fans can safely appear at stadiums to support their favorite team," he said optimistically.
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