Over recent weeks, serious tensions grew within the football matrix here in Egypt. This matrix includes all the different dimensions involved, from organisational entities to professional players and managers, and finally — very specific to Egypt — security institutions. There is a process of constant adaptation from each of these dimensions in order to get the wheels in motion and the matrix eventually working. This does not mean that Egypt enjoys efficiency in administering football; rather, it means that Egypt lacks a professional set of rules and regulations to conduct an institutionalised national football domain.
And there is always an eye on the consequences of any problems related to football due to the significance of the social and political zones football occupies in the public sphere. Very few activities during this time in Egypt are built on a diverse platform that connects state to society, to the media, to economic development, and finally to millions of Egyptians that are easily mobilised under a specific banner. Therefore, the contentious scene that took place over the past week, and ended Monday, 24 February, is a matter of concern, with the possibility that the truce that was struck will be short-lived, and that contention will spark up again soon.
Due to how irrationally and randomly football is run in Egypt, timings and scheduling in the national league have always been a problem. Some seasons are extremely compressed, increasing the level of tension between clubs.
Ahly and Zamalek are the two biggest football clubs. The Egyptian domestic league is composed of 18 teams, some with significant popularity, like Ismaily, Masry and Itihad. These clubs often complain about a lack of equal opportunities compared to the two big clubs. In turn, the two big clubs complain about a lack of objectivity in the administration of national football — that the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) routinely favours one team over the other. These squabbles turned football into a platform of polarisation.
After a heavy month of difficult matches for both Ahly and Zamalek, Zamalek challenged EFA, saying that it would not play the Cairo Derby with Ahly on Monday, 24 February, as scheduled because no time was left for the team to practice and rest before another match in the African Champions League, scheduled for Friday, 28 February. According to the prevailing rules and regulations, teams who refuse to play a scheduled match and withdraw from them are considered to have forfeited the game. However, the president of Zamalek challenged EFA, saying that no one dares to deduct even a single point from Zamalek, a warning sign of the confrontation between the various actors in the football matrix in Egypt. When football enjoys a fan base that exceeds that any other social or political activity, this polarisation and escalation, played out also in the media and on social networking sites, exports more problems to society and the state.
Sports media specifically has a great deal of influence over the perceptions of fans in such moments of conflict. Meanwhile, social media platforms, mainly Facebook and YouTube, are becoming ever more critical, exhibiting the growing gap between fans and club administrations, with football emerging as a potential threat to social stability. Needless to say, the media itself radicalises, if slowly, in order to secure more viewership.
What will happen remains to be seen. A new confrontation may commence after Ahly and Zamalek play their African championship matches. If this happens, the state of polarisation could be expected to escalate, leading to one of two things. First, football, after attempts at de-politicising it over the past few years, could become once more a stage of ever widening confrontation. Second, and if not checked, the overall effect of growing and escalating tensions will make the financial aspect of investing in the game not so appealing, damaging the prospects of investing in sports more widely in Egypt.
We are walking on thin ice. Reform, of course, is still an option. But it would have to be reform based on treating the root causes of contention, and not merely the symptoms. Ahly and Zamalek may be a starting point, but what actually matters is reforming the matrix or the whole framework by which Egyptian football is governed.
Reducing polarisation and managing hate speech within the sports media is also necessary.
Finally, with each important football event, Egypt demonstrates its ability to provide security at football games. But the point can easily be reached beyond which it is no longer in the interest of Egyptian security institutions to direct resources to managing public disorder at events that can just as well happen behind closed doors.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.