The Pharaohs won Oct. 8 at the Borg el-Arab Stadium in Alexandria, where Mohamed Salah scored the two goals that would send them back to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, since the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Members of the Egyptian parliament called on the government to allow fans to return to the stadiums to express their support for the players.
Egypt is known as a nation that is obsessed with soccer, but its fans have faced hard times since Feb. 1, 2012, when more than 74 people were killed and hundreds injured in a violent clash between two soccer teams’ fans in Port Said, a city in northeast Egypt along the Mediterranean coast. The fans of the two teams, Al-Masry and Al-Ahly attacked each other with knives, clubs and explosives, and many Al-Ahly fans were killed.
Egyptian Premier League matches were canceled, and other league matches were played in empty stadiums after the clash, but soccer games returned to normal around February 2013. This normalization, however, was short-lived and clashes, along with demands for justice for Al-Ahly fans killed in Port Said, continued, pushing the Egyptian Sports Ministry on April 20, 2013, to permanently ban club fans from attending local soccer matches. The Confederation of African Football demanded that fans be allowed to attend international games involving major clubs and Egyptian teams.
In the last year, Egyptian Youth and Sports Minister Khaled Abdel Aziz called for the return of fans to the stadiums more than once. The last call was during a press conference after the Cabinet meeting Oct. 12, four days after the game with Congo. Abdel Aziz said that he submitted a draft bill to Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, asking that the stadiums be opened to fans again.
Aziz said that the draft bill he submitted suggested that the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) divides teams into four categories (A, B, C and D) in terms of public base, and it will allow a certain percentage of fans from each category to attend. The stadiums will open gradually to fans, and the bill will specify which stadiums will be opened in the first phase. It is unclear when the government will accept this and when it will be implemented.
According to Hamdi Khaled, the media officer at the Ministry of Interior, there is no decision yet on when fans can start attending their team’s games.
Khaled told Al-Monitor that the Ministry of Youth and the Ministry of Interior were still mulling over the decision and were discussing the issue with the soccer teams.
Currently, attendance to soccer games is restricted, with only a small percentage attending international and regional games. The Security Department of the Interior Ministry, responsible for public order in the games, coordinates with soccer clubs and specifies the number of people allowed to attend before each game.
Khaled Latif, an EFA member, said the EFA is working hard to ensure fans can attend the games again. He added that there will be sessions with the team presidents and national security teams to specify the mechanism of bringing the fans back into the stadiums.
Latif told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The qualification of the Egyptian team for the World Cup and the fans’ good conduct paved the way for a comeback to games.” He expected the fans to return to stadiums after Egypt’s game against Ghana, one of the World Cup qualifying matches, in November.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was asked in July about when fans could come back into the stadiums. He answered at the time, “I cannot take an immediate decision unless the security forces and the Ministry of Youth and Sports are reassured that nothing painful will happen.” He was referring to the Port Said riot in 2012 and the Air Defense Stadium incident of Feb. 8, 2015, when 19 fans of Al-Zamalek club were killed.
Issam Mahmoud, the head of the Egyptian national team fans’ club, which is authorized by the ministry, told Al-Monitor that soccer in Egypt has faced tough times over the past four years due to the absence of fans from stadiums, admitting that it was the extreme fanatics who caused clashes and led to the bans.
Mahmoud believes that the comeback of fans is being delayed because the EFA is ignoring the fan clubs’ suggestions on a mechanism to ensure security in the stadiums. Various Egyptian clubs suggested in September that they establish a police unit for the soccer stadiums, but the security forces affiliated to the Ministry of Interior ignored the proposal.
Another factor that caused the ban is the “ultras," hardcore fans, according to Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University of Cairo. He explained that these young fans were affected by the January 25 Revolution and were influenced by the political situation in the country and mixed soccer with politics. “The government had to keep them away from the stadiums,” he said, adding that following the Port Said incidents in 2012, when the military council took over the rule, the ultras rose to power and attacked the military council, accusing it of treason.
Sadek added that the authorities tried to disband the ultras by classifying them as terrorist groups in 2015. Dozens of members were taken to the military court on charges of violence, and a law sanctioning clashes in stadiums was issued.
In June, Sisi signed a new sports law increasing sanctions for stadium violence. The sanctions include prison sentences up to two years and fines of up to 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,100) for anyone who uses violence in sports or organizes sports committees that violate the law.
Sadek asserted that the authorities have succeeded in disbanding the ultras and have tightened their control on the stadiums. The fan committees are no longer a problem, as they have become subdued, he said.
Sadek indicated another reason pushing the government to bring back the fans to stadiums: Some governments resort to soccer to distract citizens, as stadiums constitute a place for the public to unleash its resentment for tough economic measures and policies.