An indefinite suspension has been placed on Egyptian soccer matches after a deadly clash outside a Cairo stadium on Sunday. At least twenty people were killed in a street riot between soccer fans and state security forces, each of whom place the blame with the other side.
The confrontation began during a match between Egypt’s two premiere football leagues. While spokespeople for the security forces allege that the violence sprang from a stampede set off by unruly fans, other observers claim that it was police who instigated panic by throwing tear gas into the crowd and thrusting them into a narrow passageway that some described as a “metal cage.”
President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has promised to launch an investigation into the incident. But it’s easy to be skeptical that such an inquiry could be truly objective, given that Sisi owes his position of power to a military coup spearheaded by the very institution that would be at the center of the probe.
As tempting as it may be to deem the incident a tragic consequence of fandom gone awry, it’s tough to escape the serious political implications at play. The source of the clash may remain unclear, but it does raise serious questions about the state security force — as well as the politicization of Egyptian soccer fans.
The brutality of Egypt’s notorious militarized security force against civilians was one of the major objections voiced by Tahrir Square protesters in 2011. Two years later, many of the same people who championed the ouster of Mubarek similarly cheered on the military coup that forced out the Muslim Brotherhood leaders who replaced him. Like Mubarek, Sisi is a secular authoritarian with military roots — and to many, Egypt looks much as it did under their longtime dictator. The repressive military forces are no exception: the Financial Times bluntly dubs the “restoration of the security state” to be the “biggest problem” Egypt faces today.
The deadly altercation at the soccer stadium is just the latest instance of brutal state repression. Egypt has recently landed in headlines for arresting and killing protesters, as well as imprisoning multiple journalists. In the clearest symbol of a return to the Mubarak-era status quo, Mubarek was cleared of corruption charges and freed from prison last year.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s impassioned soccer fans have become unlikely political agents. For one thing, the demographics of soccer fans give them an outsized political stake in a country whose dismal economic prospects disproportionately harm youth. Since there are so few opportunities for unimpeded political communication in Egyptian society, the sporting arena has provided an unexpected forum for expression: in the late days of Mubarek, anti-government chants were reportedly bellowed throughout the stadiums, and soccer fans have been a fixture of most major anti-authoritarian demonstrations since. (One sobering example: a 2012 soccer disaster in Port Said left 72 dead.) So yesterday’s violence comes as little surprise.
While Egypt may have reverted to its pre-2011 dynamic, its revolutionary youth are clearly still aggrieved. This weekend’s soccer stadium clash shows that a paradigm-shift doesn’t necessarily follow regime-change.