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

A police pickup truck burns after being set on fire by Egyptian Ultras, hard-core soccer fans, during an anti government rally in front of the Giza security directorate, background, in Giza, Egypt. Arabic on the wall at right, reads “March 9th, retribution, hurt the interior ministry.” (AP/Nasser Nasser, File)
Updated 16 April 2018
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Being a football fan in Egypt is a risky, even deadly, passion

CAIRO: Being a football 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-Sisi 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 football 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-Sisi 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-Sisi’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.”


PSG chief Al-Khelaifi charged with corruption over Qatar worlds athletics champs

Updated 23 May 2019
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PSG chief Al-Khelaifi charged with corruption over Qatar worlds athletics champs

  • BeIN Sports boss Nasser Al-Khelaifi has been under investigation since March
  • Another BeIN executive is also under investigation in France

PARIS: Paris Saint-Germain chief Nasser Al-Khelaifi was on Thursday charged with corruption in connection with the bidding process for this year’s world athletics championships in Doha, judicial sources said.
Al-Khelaifi, who is also the boss of Qatari television channel BeIN Sports, has been under investigation since March in a probe of the bidding process for the 2017 and the 2019 world championships.
Doha lost out to London to stage the 2017 worlds but beat off opposition to host the 2019 event from Eugene in the United States and Barcelona.
Al-Khelaifi was informed by letter of his “mis en examen,” a French legal term that has no direct equivalent in the American or British legal systems but roughly translates as being charged.
The French term does not automatically trigger a trial but means that prosecutors believe there is strong or corroborated evidence of wrongdoing.
Al-Khelaifi was unable to attend questioning by investigators scheduled for May 16 as he was in Qatar for the domestic cup final.
French prosecutors are looking specifically at two payments of $3.5 million in 2011 by Oryx Qatar Sports Investment, a company jointly owned by Al-Khelaifi and his brother Khalid, to a sports marketing firm run by Papa Massata Diack.
Diack’s father Lamine Diack was president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) from 1999 to 2015 and a member of the International Olympic Committee.
As well as probing the world athletics championships the French investigation is also examining circumstances in which the Olympic Games were awarded to Rio de Janeiro for 2016 and Tokyo for 2020.
Prior to the decision to charge him, Al-Khelaifi had been questioned in March as “person of interest” in the case revolving around the 2011 payments by Oryx which were made at a time when Doha was seeking to host the 2017 world athletics championship and the 2020 Olympics.
Investigators were seeking to determine whether, in return for the payments, Lamine Diack used his influence to gain votes for Doha among IAAF members and also to obtain a date change for the competitions to avoid the heat of the Qatar summer.
The world championships take place at the Khalifa International Stadium between September 27 and October 6.
Al-Khelaifi’s lawyer Francis Szpiner denied all wrongdoing on the part of his client saying the Oryx payments were fully transparent and the facts of the case “do not concern him (Al-Khalaifi).”
The head of BeIN Sports “authorized no payment of any kind in relation to the allegations made,” he told AFP.
“Nasser Al-Khelaifi was neither a shareholder, nor a director of Oryx en 2011. He did not intervene either directly or indirectly in the candidature of Doha...”
Another BeIN executive, Yousef Al-Obaidly, a PSG board member and close associate of Al-Khelaifi, is also under investigation in France which claims jurisiction because the IAAF is based in Monaco.
Al-Obaidly has also denied all wrongdoing, saying the allegations were “utterly baseless and unsubstantiated.”
Lamine Diack, meanwhile, was charged with corruption in March in relation to the case while an arrest warrant has been issued for his Senegal-based son, also wanted for corruption and money laundering, according to a source close to the probe.
French prosecutors this week recommended that Diack and his son stand trial in a separate matter, for allegedly obstructing sanctions against Russia for doping in return for payments when he was IAAF president.