Imagine, if you can, the USSF and new president Carlos Cordeiro, backed by a slew of MLS owners, calling a press conference and announcing their undying loyalty to Donald Trump, and urging all American soccer fans to vote Republican in the upcoming midterm elections. While the idea may seem fantastical, it is more or less what’s happening in Egypt.
On Sunday, January 14, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) took the unprecedented step of holding a press conference in support of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s bid for reelection. The Association, led by EFA president Hani Abu Rida, pledged allegiance to the controversial president for the first time in its history.
The press conference not only featured the EFA leadership, but the various presidents of Egypt’s football clubs, including Mahmoud el-Khatib, a man widely regarded as one of the greatest players in African football history and who now serves as the 18th president of Egypt’s most popular sporting club, Al Ahly. Others present included the Tersana SC president, the Misr Lel-Makkasa SC president, and Al Ittihad Alexandria president. Seated on stage before a large banner that proclaimed that the “Egyptian Football Association backs and supports president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to lead the country through continuous achievements,” each of the men threw their unwavering support behind the presidential campaign.
The press conference also featured countless athletes from various generations of Egyptian sports, all of whom were there to support Sisi’s reelection — a moment state newspaper Al-Ahram referred to as a “noble goal” and a “historic stand.”
The surreal scene is the perfect illustration fn the unabashed politicization of football in Egypt, as well as the EFA’s willingness to become an instrument of propaganda during the upcoming Egyptian elections, to be held March 26-27. As a result of this display of clear and obvious political favoritism, FIFA announced that the EFA may face a suspension and Egypt is in in jeopardy of losing its spot in the 2018 World Cup. The pro-Sisi press conference completely disregarded FIFA’s regulations, which stipulates that associations must be independent and that governments must not interfere in their affairs.
While Egypt is unlikely to actually be kicked out of the World Cup — its first appearance since 1990—the marriage between the country’s football association and its government should raise grave concerns about the sport’s independence and whether it will continue to be used as a tool for Sisi’s political gain. Given that Sisi has already arrested several candidates and intimidated others out of running against him, his use of football propaganda spotlights the absurdist political theater that has replaced Egyptian politics.
Three days following his announcement that he would run against President el-Sisi in the upcoming elections, former Chief of Staff of the Egyptian armed forces Sami Anan was arrested by the Egyptian army and placed in a military jail. The Supreme Committee of the Armed Forces accused the 69-year-old of “committing violations that warrant official investigations” by not obtaining the army’s approval before he sought election. He was also accused of attempting to divide the armed forces and citizens of Egypt.
Anan’s arrest was believed to have been politically motivated to obstruct a genuine contender — and presumed threat to Sisi’s presidency— from running against him in March. It was just the latest in a series of political detentions conceived to clear the incumbent president’s path for reelection.
Back in December, Colonel Ahmed Konsowa was arrested after announcing he wanted to run for presidency. He was tried and sentenced by a military court to six years in prison for “disobeying military orders by expressing his political views.” In January, former prime minister and commander of the Egyptian air forces, Ahmed Shafik, was deported back to Egypt from the United Arab Emirates — where he had taken refuge since the Egyptian Revolution — after announcing his intention to run for president. He disappeared for over 24 hours and later resurfaced to withdraw from the campaign, citing that he was not the “ideal person to lead the state’s affairs.”
Shafik’s withdrawal was followed by that of Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer who had announced his intention. Ali was pressured to withdraw after a publishing office that housed his campaign leaflets was raided and his campaign organizers were arrested. Shortly thereafter, Mortada Mansour, the owner of the popular Zamalek football club and the primary rival of Al Ahly, announced he would also drop out of the upcoming election.
In a matter of weeks, five prime candidates were uprooted by the Egyptian regime, eliminating all opposition and potential dissidents, leaving the path clear for the incumbent president to ensure his success — a constituency of one in a country with more than 90 million people.
During the 30-year reign of former president Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian citizens were limited in their opportunities to participate in the socio-political sphere. The state oppressed those who attempted to engage in discussion or dissent, leaving no formal outlet for citizens to relieve their frustrations. With no formal political life in Egypt outside of the regime’s will, a vacuum was created that allowed for unorthodox entities to arise as alternative forms of political expression. For some, this came in the form of religious affiliations, while others — particularly the generation of youth born under Mubarak’s oppression — found football to be their preferred outlet. This brought about the rise of the Egyptian Ultras, a community of hardcore football fans with remarkable socio-political awareness.
By 2007, the Ultras (at the time limited to fans of Al Ahly) began to mobilize in stadiums, both at home and away matches, with exceptional organization. They maintained strict stadium etiquette and used banners, inspirational slogans such as “We Are Egypt,” and crimson flares to get the attention of the Egyptian government.
Historically, the Egyptian government has feared opposition groups that they cannot control. During Mubarak’s regime, the Ultras were seen as an unknown entity with dangerous capabilities because of their united front, their sheer numbers in youth, and their self-sufficient funding accumulated through donations from their own members . Tensions rose between the government and the Ultras, leading to regular clashes between the two entities outside of stadiums.
For decades, unauthorized gatherings were banned under martial law. The government heavily monitored political activity and the country’s youth to determine whether potential unrest or rebellion was brewing. With the Ultras, the government was not sure whether it was dealing with anarchists, political operatives, or radicalized youth. At the sight of Ultras groups at football matches, state paranoia often resulted in police brutality.
The cycle of violence between the Ultras and the police heightened during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, where the football fans took on the role of revolutionaries. Well-versed in street activism and experienced in fighting the police, the Ultras were able to mobilize the youth and played a pivotal role in the success of the movement in the early days of chaos. And when they were not fighting or protecting others from the police and the regime’s thugs, they sang songs to energize the crowds and remind them why they were risking their lives.
“The Ultras had one voice,” sports analyst Hassan El Mistikawy told Al Jazeera. “It is thrilling to see 5,000 young men marching in the streets, speaking with one voice. They energized people.”
While the Ultras were considered heroes during the 18 days of uprising that ultimately resulted in Mubarak’s resignation, their luck began to change short thereafter. The following year saw an organized massacre take place in the Port Said stadium, where Al Ahly fans were watching their team play Al Masry. When the final whistle blew that day, tragedy ensued. Thugs stormed the stadium, sealing the exits and targeting innocent fans. 74 people were killed, including 72 Ultras. Over 500 were injured during the attacks, which saw some beaten with clubs and sticks, while others were stabbed.
The massacre served as a turning point for the Ultras, who continued to get more involved in Egyptian politics over the next three years. They pressured the authorities and demanded retrials for those acquitted of the deaths of their comrades. Ultras members even stormed the Football Federation and torched the Police Officer’s Club. By the time Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ascended to the Egyptian presidency, the Ultras were once again a target for the government.
In May 2015, the Cairo Court for Urgent Affairs issued a controversial verdict that effectively banned the activities of football fan groups, without exception. Ultras were labelled a “terrorist organization,” which put an end to their legitimacy as a peaceful opposition group. The decision to label all Ultras groups as terrorists brought a swift end to one of the only avenues for Egyptian youth to voice frustration.
While the Egyptian regime was shutting down dissent among young football fans, it was also working towards the politicization of Egypt’s official football association. The pro-Sisi press conference spotlights the EFA as now, functionally, an extension of the government and an instrument for propaganda.
A quick glance at the EFA’s official website highlights the troubling relationship between the sports organization and the Egyptian regime. While the site is currently under construction, it continues to feature a video clip where Sisi meets with the Egyptian national team following their entry into the 2018 World Cup.
“In a little over an hour, you managed to make 100 million Egyptians proud,” Sisi said during his meeting with the national team. “They are proud of you. It shows you that everything you do makes Egyptians proud. And they have a right to be proud. They deserve to be proud.”
Sisi’s speech showed a significant shift in his perception of football. After abolishing the hardcore fan groups, he showed little interest in the sport until the national team reached the final of the African Cup of Nations for the first time since 2010. Ever since, he has ridden the coattails of the sport’s rekindled popularity, and attempted to co-opt the nationalist fervor for himself.
In January 2016, Sisi stood before an auditorium at Cairo’s Opera House filled with Egyptian youth and declared 2016 to be the Year of the Youth.” The event was dedicated to the launch of the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, an international digital library project aimed at educating Egyptian citizens. The President’s initiatives didn’t stop there, however; he went onto announce that a series of sports complexes were to be built across Egypt.
Sisi cited the importance of sports in the development of Egypt’s youth, and deemed it essential to the country’s ability to command a stronger presence and increase participation on a global stage. He approved a project to design a “sports city” in the country’s new administrative capital. The $20 million sports city, which is located in Port Said — the same city where 74 football fans were slaughtered — was inaugurated in January 2018.
Shortly after Sisi’s announcement of his sports agenda, Egypt reintroduced the Al Ahram Squash Open in an attempt to prove to the international community that the country is no longer plagued with “security fears.” Egypt also plans to host more international sports events, including the 2021 Handball World Men’s Championship in Alexandria, Luxor, and Sharm El-Sheikh. It is yet another example of how Egypt has turned to sports diplomacy in an attempt to reestablish ties with the international community and improve its image in mass media.
The use of sports by governments is a classic soft-power approach both internationally, and to firm up support at home. The development of sports complexes could benefit an entire generation of Egyptian youth, which in return would raise the nation’s image on an international stage. It would also distract a fair segment of disgruntled teenagers from their limited prospects in post-revolution Egypt, which in turn keeps them from opposing Sisi.
Over the past few years, Sisi’s conscious decision to build a sports city and pay special attention to the development of Egypt’s youth through sports such as football helps incite support from the upcoming generation, while the detention of various presidential candidates that could oppose him in the upcoming election quashes opposition to his rule. Two sides of the same coin, and both serve their purpose to maintain Sisi’s political theater.