Being a soccer fan in Egypt is a risky, even deadly, passion

FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2012 file photo, Egyptians sit on a sidewalk in front of the Al-Ahly sporting club in Cairo, Egypt. Being a soccer fan in Egypt has been a dangerous and sometimes deadly passion for years. That may soon change. The Al-Ahly club’s “Ultras” are appealing to authorities in April 2018 to negotiate an end to years of tension and violence dating back to the death of more than 70 fans in a 2012 riot. The government is mulling its options. (AP Photo, File)

Being a soccer fan in Egypt has been a dangerous, sometimes even deadly, passion for years, but that may soon change

CAIRO — Being a soccer fan in Egypt has been a dangerous, sometimes even deadly, passion for years. That may soon change.

The Al-Ahly club's "Ultras" — hardcore supporters of the Cairo-based team and the country's largest fan association — have appealed to authorities to negotiate an end to years of tension and violence while disavowing members involved in a recent post-game rampage that had temporarily shattered the prospects for reconciliation.

Preliminary contacts between the two sides are underway as a prelude to talks to hammer out an agreement allowing fans back in games for the first time since a ban on attendance following a 2012 riot in the coastal city of Port Said that left more than 70 fans, mostly Ultras, dead in one of the world's worst soccer-related incidents.

The ban on fans attending games was later relaxed for continental games. An attempt earlier this year to introduce a partial and gradual relaxation of the ban on domestic games was aborted at the last minute, with police citing security concerns.

The ongoing contacts to lift the ban are a welcome development that, if fruitful, would give a significant boost to the sport at a time when Egypt is making its return to the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

"We are all suffering from the absence of fans and want them back to revive the atmosphere in stadiums," said Mukhtar Mukhtar, the manager of league club Military Production. "Their absence has undoubtedly impacted on the players' performance."

A deal is believed to be possible now because the government of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi appears to be more confident of its control over the country after years of turmoil and a massive crackdown that sent thousands of dissidents to jail.

The riot in Port Said in 2012 was not the only soccer-related tragedy to befall Egypt.

In 2015, 22 fans were killed in a stampede prompted by heavy tear gas fired by police outside a military-owned stadium in a Cairo suburb. Additionally, hundreds of fans have been arrested over the years as the Ultras took part in violent protests, including one in 2013 that torched the headquarters of the Egyptian soccer federation and vandalized a police social club, and others marking the anniversary of the 2012 tragedy.

The violence has over time deepened a sort of vendetta between police and fans, who seize every occasion to taunt the paramilitary force with chants, some of which also have an anti-government slant. Moreover, many fans accuse the police of failing to prevent the deadly Port Said riot or intervene to end it when it first started.

The years of violence, arrests and incessant demonization of fans by the pro-government media have led to the reduction of the number of association members across the country, forcing some to even voluntarily disband. But they have also given rise to a younger and more radical generation whose resentment of authorities is more deeply entrenched and seem more inclined to be involved in acts of violence, according to veteran fan association leaders.

But fatigue from a long, drawn-out conflict may have finally set in.

"We are tired of going around police stations and prisons looking for our comrades," said Mohammed Saheel, a former Ultras leader from Cairo. "We want things to quieten down with the government, see the detainees go free and the crackdown ends."

Ultras leaders and lawyers representing them say that another idea under consideration is to disband the association as a goodwill gesture they hope the government would reciprocate with a pardon for convicted members or those in detention awaiting trial. Another idea under consideration is to retain a private security firm to police matches, thus removing the possibility of fan-police frictions.

The fallout from the violence of the past years has been catastrophic for the game, by far Egypt's most popular, hurting mainly the big clubs with a large support base. Club officials complain it has negatively impacted on performances, with games in domestic competitions played before eerily silent terraces.

Not surprisingly, the national squad that qualified for the World Cup in Russia is mostly made up of foreign-based players, led by Liverpool forward Mohammed Salah.

The Ultras and their clashes with police are a potent example of how soccer and politics mix in Egypt. The Ultras played a key role in the uprising that toppled long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. They fought police for months in street clashes that followed.

Their battle of wills with the police led to a court ruling in 2015 that outlawed the Ultras, along with other associations, branding them terrorist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group.

The pro-government media has claimed they were also linked to a leftist, anti-government group, April 6, which together with the Brotherhood have been declared terrorist organizations in separate court rulings.

The feud endures, prompting calls by some commentators for both sides to sit down and resolve their differences to avoid more violence. These calls followed a statement released April 3 by the Ultras in which they appealed to el-Sissi to start a dialogue between them and police to iron out their differences and to pardon nearly 50 members detained since last month's rampage in a Cairo stadium.

The statement, issued to mark el-Sissi's re-election last month, was the clearest peace offering by the Ultras.

"I appeal to the presidency to respond to the statement," said Mohammed Rashwan, a prominent defense lawyer who has represented members of the Ultras in a series of court cases. "I have already been in contact with the minister of youth and sports and there are initiatives under discussion to allow fans to return to stadiums and lay down a system for that."

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