Best known for his brutal repression of critics, Egyptian-general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has invited the members of the Ultras, the militant anti-government football fans, to participate in the court proceedings related to a 2012 politically loaded football brawl in which 72 supporters of storied Cairo club Al-Ahly SC died.
Al-Sisi’s invitation contrasted starkly with Al-Ahly’s response to the protest on the fourth anniversary of the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history perpetrated by Ahlawy Ultras, the club’s militant supporters who played a key role in the toppling in 2011 of president Hosni Mubarak and the protests against Al-Sisi after he came to power in a military coup in 2013.
Anticipating a harsh government response to the protest, Al-Ahly denounced the Ultras for using the commemoration of the incident on the club’s grounds to demand that Al-Sisi’s predecessor, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led Egypt as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) immediately after the fall of Mubarak, be held accountable for the deaths of their comrades. The club banned fans from attending the club’s training sessions
The brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said occurred on Tantawi’s watch. The Ultras contend that government-hired thugs caused a stampede in the stadium and beat Al-Ahly supporters to death, with security forces standing aside and the doors locked from the outside.
An appellate court has sentenced 11 people to death and more than a dozen others to lengthy prison terms on charges of having been responsible for the brawl.
Al-Sisi issued his invitation in a phone call made to a popular television programme, which he said he was making to address the Ultras. He said the ultras should appoint 10 of their members to form a committee that would be able to investigate the incident. The president did not elaborate on what kind of access the committee would have or on what rules it would operate.
It was also not clear what prompted Al-Sisi’s invitation, but state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper noted in its coverage of the president’s remarks that “many disgruntled youths are unhappy with what they deem heavy-handed practices by security forces. Scores of Islamist, liberal and secular activists have been jailed since Al-Sisi was elected as president in June 2014. Many fell afoul of a stringent protest law as Egypt’s Interior Ministry cracked down on dissent,” the newspaper said.
Al-Sisi struck a conciliatory tone by admitting that “it’s us who are not able to properly communicate with them [disgruntled youths]. We are the ones who are unable to find common ground. I’m exerting a lot of effort in this matter and I’m aware that I will need time. Finding the balance between security measures and human rights is a sensitive and delicate issue which needs a lot of effort,” he said.
Members of various Ultras groups, including Ultras Ahlawy, formed the backbone of the student protests against Al-Sisi that have petered out as a result of arrests, expulsions from universities, and the turning of universities into security force-controlled fortresses.
In December, a Cairo court sentenced 15 supporters of the Ultras White Knights (UWK)—the militant group supporting Al-Ahly’s archrival Al-Zamalek SC—to five years in prison with hard labour for allegedly attempting to assassinate the club’s controversial president, Mortada Mansour.
Mansour’s already strained relations with his club’s fan base deteriorated further when he, as a newly elected member of parliament, changed the words of the official oath of parliament office stating that he would only respect the “articles of the constitution”, rather than the constitution itself, because its preamble honoured the 2011 popular revolt.
“25 January brought the Muslim Brotherhood and 30 June brought Sisi – whose side are you on?” Mansour asked in a television interview after the incident. He was referring to the 2011 popular revolt that erupted on 25 January, and the mass anti-Brotherhood protests on 30 June 2013 that paved the way for Al-Sisi’s coup.
While the Ultras have yet to respond to Al-Sisi’s invitation, they are unlikely to take him up on his offer without guarantees that any investigation will be fully independent and will have a provision of broad access. The Ultras are likely to further use the invitation and Al-Sisi’s lowered armour to press for a re-opening of stadia to the public.
Fans have largely been banned from attending league matches for much of the past five years. An attempt a year ago to partially lift the ban failed when security forces killed 20 supporters of Al-Zamalek who had been trying to get into a stadium for which a limited number of tickets had been made available.
Ultras have insisted that their past attendance at training sessions and youth handball and football matches without causing incident has proven that there is no basis for the closure of stadia.
In his phone call to the television station, Al-Sisi suggested that Ultras participate in the investigation because in “incidents involving huge masses, many facts get lost. It’s always difficult to determine the truth behind what happened…. I call on the Ultras to select 10 of their members whom they trust to be part of a committee to look into all the details concerning this case and determine what more can be done.”
Al-Sisi’s invitation came at a time that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are considering reducing substantial funding because of the president’s poor performance economically, emerging differences in Saudi-Egyptian attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and differences over Syria.
The Ultras-backed student groups have close ties to youth groups of the Brotherhood that Al-Sisi contends are the source of all of Egypt’s problems. Since coming to power, Saudi King Salman has cautiously moved away from his predecessor’s stance to crackdown on the Brotherhood.
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 Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.