Football has significant value within Egyptian society. The popularity of the game among fans in Egypt beats any other sport. The beginnings of organisations and collective action among fans also began within the realm of football, and since the beginning of the official Egyptian National Football League in 1948 football has been a social activity that has attracted plenty of crowds from various social strata.
The connection between football and politics in Egypt has also been tangible over the course of the political tensions Egypt has faced since the 25 January Revolution in 2011 and in the years that followed.
The start of the current scene dates back to 2004, when new technological applications allowed football fans to organise and communicate with each other via the Internet. Here, we must notice that a connection between cheering for football teams and actual presence on the ground at matches was created and aided by the new electronic means of communication. At first, these groups communicated through an application known as MSN Messenger, a primitive application that allowed virtual communication among the fans. It managed to be successful in mobilising and creating connections among them.
After the Africa Cup of Nations Tournament in 2006 organised in Egypt, changes took place in the relationship between football, collective action and politics. A sort of class-based merger happened among the fans in stadiums, reducing class-based sentiments when cheering for the sport. Almost a year later, the Ultras football-fan movements emerged, presenting a new mode of organisation of the fans in Egyptian stadiums and in the public sphere as a whole that introduced the Ultras as organised movements.
During the 25 January Revolution and afterwards, the Ultras movements of organised football fans quickly became politicised, specifically owing to their sometimes uncomfortable history with the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for securing football activities in Egypt. Political polarisation was also heavily present within the public sphere at the time, and sudden engagement with politics led to political conflicts within the Ultras movements.
There was a core paradox in that the Ultras movements are entities that primarily care for the interests of the clubs they cheer for, but that after 2011 these same movements became a socio-political force on the ground. Dramatic events happened, decisions were taken and actions materialised on the ground as a result of the Ultras movements. Their relationship with the government grew more contentious, and the political significance of football as a social phenomenon escalated.
The scene in 2019 is not much different, and there is still a troubled and turbulent connection between football and politics in Egypt. Over the past few weeks, a new controversy has broken out between the different entities responsible for administering football in the country. The Egyptian Football Association, the Ministry of Youth and Sport, the Al-Ahly Club and the Al-Zamalek Club are the four main pillars of the football industry in Egypt. No doubt some security institutions also intervene at times to manage the games and secure the fans, but they are not necessarily present at each game owing to a variety of factors.
In any attempt to review the football-politics nexus in Egypt, some key points must be looked at. From time to time, a state of polarisation occurs between Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek fans. Since the politicisation of the Ultras movements in 2011, this polarisation has started to materialise on the ground, sometimes in violent forms and sometimes in virtual ones on social media.
The disqualification of the Egyptian National Team from the Africa Cup of Nations hosted by Egypt during the summer of 2019 led to the board of the Football Association resigning and a temporary committee formed to run football activities in the country. This disrupted the logistics of football commitments, causing tensions between the poles. The country’s security institutions also have their own variables in judging their ability to secure the fans during times of polarisation.
There are those who argue that a state that organised a championship like the Africa Cup of Nations a few months ago in a very creative manner is more than capable of securing fans in local league matches that see far fewer fans when compared to during the African tournament. On the other hand, others believe that the tight conditions at football matches that can attract millions of fans and the political tensions that the state faces have had repercussions on the collective scene. The contentious relationship between these opinions now dominates the Egyptian football scene, and it has led to postponing the Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek match that was supposed to be played more than a week ago during the fourth round of the National League.
Bringing the fans back to the stadiums and maintaining an organised pace in the National League requires a process of de-politicisation. The Ultras movements were never really political movements, and they never had a political ideology or agenda. They interacted politically with the public sphere during a time of turbulence that no longer exists. Therefore, political sentiments should not be present among football fans today, and political orientations should not constitute lobbies within organised groups like the Ultras movements.
The fans must return to the stadiums to end a phase of absurd polarisation, but at the same time the Ultras movements need to go back to their original purpose, which is cheering for the clubs they relate to and in which they find some sort of collective identity. Football is a very sensitive industry in society because it influences and interacts with the feelings and sometimes the actions of millions. It is a soft-power challenge for the Egyptian state to properly manage it.
*The writer is a senior researcher and director of the Programme for the Mediterranean & North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly