Egypt behind closed doors

Damiano Benzoni

In the 79th minute Mohamed Aboutreika unevened the score: he rose up between two Zamalek defenders and headed the cross of his team-mate Abdallah el-Said, sending it behind the shoulders of the goalie Abdelwahed el-Sayed. Aboutreika scored the winner for al-Ahly in the Cairo derby, taking “the people’s team” on top of group B of the CAF Champions League and leaving Zamalek bottom of the pool, behind the Ghanaians of Berekum Chelsea and the Congolese of TP Mazembe. Strangely enough for one of the most heated derbies in the world, nobody was there to cheer, and Aboutreika’s goal was welcomed by a deafening silence: for the first time in a ninety-year history, the Egyptian derby was played behind closed doors, with only journalists, photographers, commentators and officials attending.

The Cairo derby has always been a huge security issue. The Guardian journalist James Montague says that it’s been played for years now on the neutral venue of the Stad el-Qahira el-Dawly, the international stadium of Cairo, and is officiated by a foreign referee in order to guarantee the black jacket is unbiased. In the seventies its violence brought to the halt of the whole Egyptian championship on one occasion. The rift between al-Ahly and Zamalek has always been not only a footballing division, but also a social one. Al-Ahly was founded in 1907, its name means “the National” and its colours are the ones of the pre-colonial flag of Egypt: imbued with nationalism, it represented the opposition to the British rule. Zamalek and its white shirt have always been considered to have close bonds with the establishment: with the British occupant before, then with king Fārūq, whose name became the team’s moniker until the 1952 Revolution. As Montague tells, “In the red corner you had the devout, the poor and the proud; in the white corner the liberal, bourgeois middle class”.

This time, though, tension was exacerbated by the ghost of what happened on February 1st in Port Sa’īd: the home team, al-Masry, had just won 3-1 against al-Ahly when a violent charge by armed home supporters caused the death of 79 people. After Port Sa’īd the Egyptian championship was cancelled by the ministry of the Interior, which denied the Egyptian FA permission to hold the 2012-2013 league and only allowed for games of the national team and of the two teams involved in the CAF Champions League – strictly behind closed doors. According to James Dorsey’s blog Mideastsoccer the public perceived Port Sa’īd as a gone-out-of-hand attempt by the army to teach a lesson to militant fans for their opposition to the regime. Security forces, an institution which isn’t enjoying public trust because of their support for the repressive regime of Mubarak, allegedly let al-Masry supporters take weapons into the stadium and watched hell unravel in front of their eyes without moving one finger.

In such a crucial moment for Egypt, which has just elected Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as the new president and where the military is reluctant to leave their hold on politics and return to their barracks, the cancellation of the championship is part of a policy of defusing the terraces, a highly politicised and violent environment which showed to be an efficient organising pole during the protests in Taḥrīr square, where even long-time rivals from al-Ahly and Zamalek were united in opposition to the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Public support to the football fans was already decreasing before Port Sa’īd and now, after the halt of the leagues, the military junta is effectively trying to put the most politicised supporters’ organisation to the corner and to exclude them from the pitch of Egyptian politics.

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