Can Egypt’s football fans be trusted?

October 24, 2017

All Egyptians are rightly proud of qualifying for 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Egyptian football teams 2-1 victory over Congo at Alexandria’s Borg El-Arab stadium sealed the return of Egypt for the first time in 28 years. But the game was notable for another reason. There were fans in the stadium cheering their team on. Incredible as it may seem, spectators at a football match have been a rarity for the last five years.

In 2012, Egyptian club football was besmirched by the appalling murder of 74 fans in running battles in Port Said between followers of the city’s Al-Masry team and the visiting Al-Ahly team from Cairo. No less than 500 fans were injured by bottles, clubs, fireworks, knives, stones and swords. Unfortunately, this hooligan violence had already become a regular feature of Egyptian football. In Port Said in 2012 it was not even inspired by fans angry at losing the game. The assault by Al-Masry fans followed their team’s 3-1 victory over the visitors from Cairo.

The government’s response to this final outrage was to shut down the entire Egyptian premier league. Other leagues had to play in stadia devoid of fans. A temporary lifting of this ban resulted in more fan violence and it was reimposed.

The only exceptions were international matches and these were made at the insistence of international football bodies. Such games have been heavily policed.

The fan ban has been bad for Egyptian football. Club incomes have collapsed. But clearly the lack of an audience has not stopped players from improving their skills. This week’s World Cup qualification is proof of that.

Now there are moves to allow spectators back onto the terraces. A range of precautionary measures is being proposed. It seems very likely that changes will be made but there is no underestimating the risk.

The savage thuggery that disfigured the Beautiful Game in Egypt had absolutely nothing to do with football. It was rather everything to do with social pressures, low incomes, unemployment and a general lack of opportunity that caused young people to give an unhinged loyalty to a football team in much the same way that youngsters adhere to street gangs. It conferred a spurious sense of identity. Indeed there is evidence that street gangs played a significant role in the brutal violence both in and out of the stadia on match days.

This phenomenon is by no means unique to Egypt. Twenty years ago, European clubs wrestled with disgusting behavior by so-called fans. Though violence, especially around international games, remains a concern, football clubs and police broke the back of their domestic problem using strict searches at the turnstiles, CCTV surveillance of crowds, the prompt arrest of any misbehaving fans on the terraces, heavy court fines and bans, sometimes lifetime bans on persistent troublemakers. This, coupled with expensive policing of stadia and the towns and cities in which games are held has broken the back of football violence.

It must be wondered if Egyptian clubs, police and courts are going to be able to institute anything like these rigorous defenses. The Port Said courts took five years to convict some of the killers from the Al-Masry - Al-Ahly game. Without major coordinated deterrence, the fear must be that mindless thuggery will return to Egyptian terraces.

October 24, 2017
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