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Riot police guard Al-Ahly soccer players as they flee Port Said Stadium on Feb. 1, 2012. (REUTERS)
Riot police guard Al-Ahly soccer players as they flee Port Said Stadium on Feb. 1, 2012. (REUTERS)

Bessma Momani

How Egypt’s failed leaders made soccer and politics run amok Add to ...

January 25 marked the two-year anniversary of the revolution that overthrew Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. This charged event alone would have been enough to cause tensions in the streets; the same-day release of court verdicts on the soccer clashes that took place in Port Said Stadium last February made a flare-up inevitable. But the chaos that has spread since that poorly-timed decision is being driven by something more fundamental: a deep crisis of confidence.

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Egypt’s citizens are taking to the streets again – for different reasons – with one message: We no longer have confidence in the Morsi government to steer us forward.

In Tahrir Square, the usual crowd of liberals and secularists has returned to familiar territory, replicating scenes from the now-infamous 18 days of riots that overthrew Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship, but there are two key differences: Chants of “down with the regime” are directed toward the elected president, Mohamed Morsi; and members of the underground movement of anarchists called the Black Bloc, dressed in black and wearing ominous balaclavas, have joined the protestors.

Missing from the Tahrir Square tinderbox is a group of soccer hooligans and fans of Cairo’s Al-Ahly team. During the 2011 riots, they were often the first to spill into the square, usually for no good political reason: They were there simply to disturb the peace and show off their team’s red colours. This year, however, they are rejoicing in the sombre sentences handed down by the judges in the cases resulting from last February’s soccer match riot.

After Port Said’s Al-Masry team beat Cairo’s Al-Ahly team in a 3-1 soccer match on Feb. 1, 2012, Port Said fans stormed the field. Chaos on the field was compounded by lax security, locked stadium gates, local frustrations, and local government incompetence that many Cairenes, at the time, blamed on the Egyptian military, which was in charge of the country. Al-Ahly fans felt that the military was getting back at them for supporting the revolution and for making trouble in Tahrir Square. Seventy-two people were killed in the stadium riot that left Al-Ahly fans calling for vengeance and justice.

The verdicts of the past weekend could not have been delivered at a worse time. The trials found many Port Said fans and residents guilty of murder, and gave them the death penalty. Families and residents of Port Said and nearby towns along the Suez Canal responded by rioting; over the decisions themselves and the sloppy judicial procedures that preceded them. They also questioned the timing of the entire chain of events: Why wouldn’t the Morsi government orchestrate the timing of the decision so as to keep Cairo’s Al-Ahly fans off the streets on the revolution’s anniversary weekend? Now, Mr. Morsi has retaliated for the riots by calling for a month-long state of emergency and curfew for Port Said and other coastal towns.

This increasingly out-of-control situation is not just a series of unfortunate coincidences. Soccer and politics in Egypt are both running amuck because the current leadership has proven unable to gather the political momentum necessary to move forward smoothly, and stop lurching from crisis to crisis.

Despite having won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006, 2008, and 2010, Egypt did not even qualify for the 2012 regional soccer competition. Sadly, there’s little chance that Egypt will regain the confidence of its people through politics or sport anytime soon.

Bessma Momani is associate professor at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation and at the Brookings Institution. This article is published in partnership with theCanadian International Counciland its international-affairs hubOpenCanada.

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