Cross posted from The National.
Eight months after a deadly stadium riot in Port Said brought domestic football in Egypt to a grinding halt, the spectre of renewed violence looms over the imminent resumption of the Egyptian Premier League.
Ultras Ahlawy, the hard-core supporters group of Cairo’s Al Ahly, has issued a series of conditions for accepting a new league season, slated to begin in military stadiums on October 17.
Those conditions include a resolution of the ongoing trial of those implicated in the Port Said deaths, the resignations of the minister of sport and board of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and a purge of certain media personalities.
Dozens of Ahlawy members were among the 74 killed last February, when armed thugs invaded the away stands after the final whistle of a match between Al Ahly and Port Said’s Al Masry.
The trial, which began in April, has plodded along with no sign of a verdict soon.
One senior member named Rani, 21, issued an ominous warning of what would take place should officials forge ahead with the season.
“Violence, which was the last option,” he said. Pressed for specifics, he added, “simply breaking into the stadium.” He added that no final decision had yet been taken by the group, but that he could not envision any other course of action, “because it will be the only available way to stop the league”.
Ultras Ahlawy have been joined in their opposition to beginning the season by at least four other Ultras groups—Red Devils, an Alexandria-based Ahly supporters group; Zamalek’s White Knights; Ismaily’s Yellow Dragons and Ittihad’s Green Magic.
The government of President Mohamed Morsi has initiated dialogue with the Ultras, who have a history of clashing with police, in an effort to head off any violence.
Mohamed Fouad Gadallah, a legal adviser to the president, hosted representatives from Ahlawy, White Knights and Yellow Dragons at his house a few weeks ago.
Ahmed El Kelaya, 21, a Yellow Dragons member who attended the meeting, described Gadallah as receptive to the Ultras’ concerns. The groups’ staunch opposition to resuming the league, however, remains a sticking point, though El Kelaya cautioned that Yellow Dragons and others would not necessarily be willing to resort to violence.
“We agree on the same principles and the same mentality,” he said, “but we don’t have to do everything they do because [Ultras Ahlawy] are the ones involved, not us. They are the ones whose people died, not us.”
Ultras Ahlawy have escalated their campaign against the new season in the last month, storming two separate Ahly training facilities, EFA headquarters, and the television studios of a major Egyptian broadcaster.
They also threatened to storm the Egyptian Super Cup match between Ahly and ENPPI in early September, which was held behind closed doors at a military stadium in Alexandria. They backed off amid rumours that the police had hired local Bedouin tribes to confront them outside the stadium, although the sports ministry did postpone the start of the league by a month.
Rani vowed that these actions would continue.
“As long as [the government and media] spread [lies] about us, there will be no mercy,” he said.
But EFA spokesman Azmy Megahed insists that the season will begin on time. In his office at an EFA headquarters bearing no sign of the recent attack, he dismissed the prospect that the Ultras would cause a crisis.
“As long as the law is enforced, there will be no problem. As long as there is a state that has laws, I think everything will turn out all right,” he argued, pointing out that the military stadiums where the matches will be played are “like barracks”.
He urged the Ultras to pursue their demands through peaceful channels. “The case is still in court,” he said. “And we have to wait until the court returns its verdict. But they’re rushing. They’re attempting to rush the courts. And that’s something we don’t need.”
Egyptian football figures are desperate for a return to normal activity. The long hiatus has had debilitating financial consequences for the clubs, players and the thousands of other Egyptians – from stadium workers to souvenir vendors – who rely on football for their livelihood.
Dozens of players demonstrated in front of the sports ministry on Monday to demand the resumption of the league.
In a press conference last Wednesday, national team head coach Bob Bradley also made the case for a prompt return to domestic competition. Forced to rely on repeated training camps in a bid to stay match-sharp, the Pharaohs have struggled, opening World Cup qualifying in June with two wins, but dropping a play-off tie to lowly Central African Republic to miss out on qualification for their second consecutive Africa Cup of Nations.
“The league is very important,” said Bradley. “We must be optimistic that the league will start and that the players will be back playing every week.”
Ultras Ahlawy held a peaceful protest of their own in front of the sports ministry on Tuesday. They also saw one of their major demands met the next day as former members of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, Hani Abou-Reida and Ahmed Shobeir, withdrew their candidacies from the upcoming EFA presidential election. But with no verdict in the Port Said trial forthcoming and neither the Ultras nor the EFA willing to budge, confrontation looks increasingly likely.
And El Kelaya fears that whether or not the start of the season ushers in clashes between Ahly’s faithful and police, the government’s failure to address key Ultras priorities – namely, reforming the loathed ministry of interior, which many blame for the events in Port Said – augurs trouble down the road.
“The ministry of interior is the same – the same people, the same way as before,” he said. “They did not change … That’s why the revolution was made – because of the police officers, because of what they have done to us, to the Egyptian people. So nothing changed.”
He added this grim assessment.
“We believe that an incident like Port Said will happen again in our current atmosphere. That’s why we don’t want football to be back now.”