An Egyptian government decision to designate soccer icon Mohammed Aboutrika as a terrorist coupled with the recent arrest of more than 30 militant football fans puts to bed any hopes that general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi sees the game’s supporters as a way to reach out to his opponents.
Al-Sisi’s intent to maintain his brutal crackdown on dissidents was likely bolstered by a perceived change of attitude of the United States with the rise of president Donald Trump, who is expected to prioritise counter-terrorism over respect for human rights.
In a telephone conversation this week, Trump promised Al-Sisi, who met the president in New York in September and was the first Muslim head of state to congratulate him on his election victory, that the US was committed to supporting Egypt in its fight against political violence.
“The US president also expressed during the call his looking forward to the president’s awaited visit to Washington which is being prepared for through diplomatic channels,” Al-Sisi’s spokesperson, Alaa Youssef, said in a statement.
The designation of Aboutrika, who is a retired four-time African Footballer of the Year nicknamed the magician, the arrest of the 20 fans of storied Cairo club Al-Zamalek SC for attempting to force their way into a training session of their team, and clashes with supporters of Zamalek’s arch rival Al-Ahli SC in which two police concripts were injured after authorities detained 13 Al-Ahli fans for attempting to force their way into a training session of their team, came as part of a wider crackdown.
The 20 Zamalek fans were detained for demanding during an Egypt-Tunisia match the prosecution of club president Mortada Mansour. The fans raised a banner saying “311 days since the massacre at the Air Defence stadium, prosecute Mortada Mansour,” a reference to clashes with security forces in February last year in which some 20 Zamalek fans were killed.
A larger than life member of parliament, Mansour, who unsuccessfully campaigned for the banning of militant soccer fan groups as terrorist organisations, justified the deaths claiming that he had requested security forces to act against what he termed members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptian stadia have been closed to the public with the exception of controlled and limited access to international matches for much of the last six years in a bid to prevent them from again becoming platforms for anti-government protest.
Aboutrika, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood whose assets were frozen last year on charges that he had funded the outlawed group, was one of 1,500 public figures designated last week by a Cairo court.
Aboutrika drew the ire of authorities for supporting militant fans in the wake of suspected tacit military and security force association with a brawl in a Port Said stadium in 2012 in which 72 Al-Ahli supporters died.
The former midfielder, who captained Egypt’s national team during a decade in which it won three African titles, also expressed support for Brotherhood demonstrators, hundreds of whom were killed in a brutal crackdown on Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adaweya square following the 2013 uprising in which Al-Sisi toppled Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.
Aboutrika, who is based in Qatar, has denied being a member of the Brotherhood and has said he would appeal his designation.
Egypt has listed the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and jailed thousands of its supporters since Al-Sisi removed Morsi from office following mass protests against his rule.
A 1986 research paper by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cautioned that “a weakened Brotherhood…is likely to strengthen Islamic extremists who are even less accommodating to the US,” an expression of concern that a repressive regime’s suppression of the Brotherhood would fuel radicalisation.
The designation of the 1,500 people and the arrests coincided with the detention of nine alleged leaders of the Brotherhood on charges of planning to “disrupt order and security” on the anniversary of the 2011 popular revolt that forced president Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. Militant, highly politicised soccer fans played a key role in the revolt.
The Interior Ministry asserted that the men had “aimed at provoking public opinion by exploiting the economic situation the country is going through and coordinating with extremist entities.” Al-Sisi has seen his popularity drop in recent months amid intermittent protests against the pain of a deteriorating economy, sharply rising prices, commodity shortages, and austerity measures designed to rein in unsustainable spending on subsidies and allow Egypt’s currency to float freely.
The designation of Aboutrika and the arrests signals an end to intermittent attempts by Al-Sisi to reach out to the fans, and through them to frustrated Egyptian youth.
In an unprecedented gesture, Al-Sisi reached out last year to Ultras Ahlawy, the militant, street-battle hardened support group of Al-Ahli. In a first recognition of the potential power of the fans, Al-Sisi phoned in to a television programme on the fourth anniversary of the Port Said incident to invite militant fans to appoint 10 of their members to independently investigate the incident.
It was the first time Al-Sisi had reached out to his opponents, many of whom have been killed by the Interior Ministry’s security forces, forced underground or into exile, or are lingering in prisons where they risk abuse and torture. Ultras Ahlawy declined the invitation saying it could not be accuser and judge at the same time, but kept the door to a dialogue open.
With soccer fans having been at the core of mass student protests against Al-Sisi in 2013 and 2014 that were brutally crushed by security forces who turned universities into fortresses, the government accelerated the move of government offices, including the general prosecutor’s office, state security, judicial bodies, and a new police academy.
“The security situation is connected to the targeting of these institutions by a number of protesters centred in downtown Cairo. They seek to spread chaos throughout the country… They’re attempting to break the aura of authority around state institutions by putting them under siege, covering their walls with graffiti of vulgar images and language degrading to those who work there… The security challenges the country is going through have forced the ministry to accelerate its construction plans,” said general Ahmad Al-Badry, the former head of the police academy, at last year’s inauguration of the new academy.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccerblog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.