The Egyptian interior ministry has handed newly elected president Mohammed Morsi an unexpected asset to garner public support in his struggle for power with the country's dominant military by refusing to lift a six-month old ban on professional soccer.
The ministry justified its refusal to lift the ban imposed in February following the deaths of 74 militant soccer fans in a soccer brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said with the need to install enhanced security, including electronic gates, airport-style scanners and security cameras at Egyptian stadiums in advance of a resumption of premier league matches.
Few take the interior ministry's justification at face value even if all parties -- militant soccer fans, clubs, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and security forces -- agree on the need for enhanced security.
Soccer fans and some managers believe the interior ministry's decision reflects the military's desire to prevent the soccer pitch from re-emerging as a venue for protests against a continued role of the armed forces in the country's politics. Many draw an analogy between the refusal to allow a resumption of professional soccer and the Port Said incident, which prompted the ban.
The February brawl is widely viewed as an attempt by the military that got out of hand to teach a lesson to soccer fans who played a key role in last year's toppling of president Hosni Mubarak and have since emerged as the country's most militant opponents of the military's role in politics. Nine middle and lower ranking security officials are among 73 people currently on trial in connection with the deaths of the soccer fans.
The refusal to allow a resumption of professional soccer gives Mr. Morsi an issue that is likely to enhance his popular support as he seeks to position himself as a defender of the goals of last year's popular revolt and an agent of change. Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which last year briefly toyed with the idea of launching soccer teams of its own, vowed early this year to clean up the sports sector by removing Mubarak appointees. Mr. Morsi targeted youth and soccer fan groups in his campaign for the presidency in last month's decisive second round.
Mr. Morsi despite having won Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential election with 52 percent of the vote finds himself nonetheless between a rock and a hard place. Egypt's military, which succeeded Mr. Mubarak with a mandate to guide the country towards free and fair elections effectively pre-empted the Brotherhood victory by giving itself broad legislative and executive authority on the eve of the election.
The move has left Mr. Morsi primarily dependent on public support in his struggle for tug of war with the military. The ministry's refusal to allow a resumption of professional soccer allows him to harp on an issue that evokes deep-seated passion among a majority of the population and constitutes as national past time.
Ironically, Mr. Morsi is being supported by the military-appointed board of the EFA. In a statement, acting EFA chairman Anwar Saleh noted soccer's key role in Egyptian foreign policy as well as the fact that it generates millions of jobs in a country struggling with high youth unemployment and teetering on the brink of economic collapse as a result of 18 months of political uncertainty and volatility.
As Mr. Morsi returned this week from an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, where he stressed the need for cooperation with Africa and sought to downplay tension with fellow riparian nations over control of Nile River waters, Mr. Saleh asserted that "the key to African cooperation is football."
Egypt is Africa's most crowned national team having won the African championship three times in the last decade alone. Egypt failed last year for the first time in 29 years to qualify for the African finals.
Mr. Saleh further pointed out that soccer is "a big business that employs more than 4 million people. We're the ones who are suffering the consequences of the football stoppage, and we're ready to take full responsibility for the sport that entertains tens of millions of fans and allows more than four million families to earn livings, families who have suffered greatly during the previous period. Football isn't just a sport, Football is intimately related to politics, tourism, economy and industry," Mr. Saleh said.
The EFA chairman reiterated his organization's willingness to "work together with security agencies' to maintain stadium security. Mr. Saleh further appealed to militant soccer fans who have hinted that they may revert to their violent street-battle tactics when Cairo arch rivals Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC meet next week in an African championship match in the Egyptian capital scheduled to be played behind closed doors. Scores were killed and thousands wounded in pitched street battles between security forces and militant soccer fans in the past 18 months.
"We can also provide profit shares to the families of those killed and injured in the Port Said disaster and fan groups if they help to secure matches," Mr. Saleh said.
The militant Zamalek support group, Ultras White Knights (UWK), has demanded that the interior ministry explain its ban on soccer in detail. "The dismantled regime used to impose its ideas by force, and that eventually led to our great revolution. We are now building a new country on the basis of cooperation and justice. We, as ultras groups, offered solutions to many problems... but we were surprised with the indifferent response we got. We now want all the concerned parties to announce valid reasons for the existence of the crowd ban. We hope you take into consideration the fact that your response will shape our decision regarding the upcoming games," the UWK said.
The veiled UWK threat came two days after Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group, forced their team to cancel a training session by invading the pitch to protest their club's perceived failure to stand up for the 74 Al Ahli fans who were killed in Port Said.
"We remind everyone that today's expression of anger is a normal response to the club's indifference to the rights of our martyrs... What happened was not an accident. It was a disaster and if it happened anywhere else, it would stay in people's memory for years and years. It is not a question of days and then life is back to normal," Ahlawy said on its Facebook page.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer