Across the world, soccer occupies a sacred space that stirs up feverish nationalism and ardent fidelity to a team. Team loyalties often mirror a nation’s social and political fault lines. Egypt’s February 2 soccer game-turned-massacre, therefore, was the SCAF’s sinister manipulation of the sport to attack the revolutionary youth and terrify Egyptians into supporting their continued rule.
Egypt’s soccer landscape is demarcated by entrenched allegiances that reflect citizens’ socioeconomic status or ideological position. Egypt’s Al-Ahly side, a national powerhouse, is supported by millions of urban dwellers in Cairo. In contrast, Al-Masry’s following is largely comprised of indigent or working class citizens living in the Sinai. Egyptian soccer has always been a proxy for class struggle, which has been exacerbated in the face of increasing economic inequities. In the post-revolution economic downturn, the inequities are deteriorating rapidly.
The SCAF understands the politicization of soccer in Egypt all too well. On February 2, the SCAF took a queue straight from the playbook of former president Hosni Mubarak. During the tense World Cup 2012 qualifiers, Mubarak’s regime stirred up hyper-nationalist sentiment against Algeria to incite rioting during the final tilt in Khartoum. It has long been suspected that Mubarak and his regime orchestrated the riots to distract Egyptians from domestic problems, provoke nationalism, and in turn, solidify his power. As all members of SCAF were key leaders in the Mubarak regime, they understand all too well that the appearance of chaos after a nationally watched match could play in their favor.
Thus, the February 2 game between Port Said’s Al-Masry and Cairo’s Al-Ahly teams was ripe for political exploitation. In the riot that left 79 dead and hundreds injured, the SCAF exploited class divisions to further destabilize the country to their political advantage. The more thuggery erodes Egyptian’s sense of security, the longer the SCAF can protract military rule and attendant emergency laws.
Granted, riots during soccer matches are nothing new. Soccer-loving thugs, most vividly represented by the “English hooligans” who are barred from international competitions, have gripped European soccer for years. Similarly, Egypt’s domestic league, which boasts some of the world’s most passionate fan bases, also triggered riots in recent years. But none were at the scale of the chaos and excessive violence witnessed on February 2.
Since the riots, troubling facts have come to light revealing a pre-meditated plan to provoke unprecedented hooliganism that sent a chilling message to the millions of Egyptians watching on television. When the home-team Al-Masry upset the favorite Al-Ahly team, home team fans mobbed across the pitch toward the much fewer Al-Ahly fans. In what should have resulted in a typical post-game dispute that would quickly dissipate instead turned into a massacre.
The intentionally locked stadium doors nearly guaranteed the outcome. Amid the melee, fans were pushed from the stands and trampled to death. Hundreds were attacked by thugs in possession of illegal weapons normally prohibited from entering the stadium by intensified security. Despite common knowledge that soccer matches often turn violent, security that day was almost non-existent. Indeed, the few police that were present merely watched as people were viciously attacked.
The riots sent a chilling message to Egyptians that without the military in power, the country would delve into chaos, or “fawda,” – a culturally loaded term that most Egyptians agree must be avoided at any cost. Egypt’s growing poor would overtake Egyptian society to transform it into a lawless place where the middle and upper classes are attacked and robbed by angry mobs. The soccer riots were intended to offer a glimpse of what life would be like without the military’s benevolence.
It is no coincidence that most of those killed and injured were Ultras whose participation in the revolution tipped the scales against the Mubarak regime. Currently, they are among the most vocal proponents of immediate transition of military power to civilian rule. Hence their fate in the stadium was anything but accidental.
The February 2 soccer riots made one thing quite clear. The SCAF will stop at nothing to extend its rule, even if it means inciting Egyptians against each other. In response to repeated calls for their immediate departure, the SCAF’s apparently seeks to create a state of “fawda,” or chaos, to scare Egyptians into supporting the military
But the SCAF’s state-sponsored hooliganism, far exceeding Mubarak’s duplicitous tactics, has backfired. Hundreds of thousands of Egypt’s poured into Tahrir Square the following Friday to protest the SCAF’s complicity. Calls for the SCAF’s immediate resignation have grown louder only to be met with more state violence against peaceful protesters in Tahrir. And the Egyptian people’ faith in the military’s ability to maintain stability is waning.
To be sure, the political aftermath of the Port Said massacre is an indictment against the SCAF – a political red card – they should be banished back to their barracks.
Sahar Aziz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, where she teaches national security and Middle East law. She is also a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. This article was initially published by The Atlantic Council on February 10, 2012.