The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) is struggling with how to penalize the Suez Canal town of Port Said's soccer team Al Masri SC for a clash six weeks ago with supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC in which 74 fans were killed in the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history.
The EFA's dilemma is not simply one of satisfying demands for justice by Ultras Ahlawy, the militant Ahly support group, which suffered the greatest loss of life without provoking die-hard Al Masri supporters but also goes to the heart of what really happened in Port Said.
Egyptian prime minister Kamel El-Ganzouri cautioned that Al Masri's punishment "should neither be lenient nor excessive," according to Egyptian media.
The EFA's dilemma is compounded by the fact that it is being managed by caretakers after the board appointed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak was summarily dismissed by the government immediately after the Port Said clash. FIFA's executive committee is expected to discuss the Port Said situation at the end of this month.
The EFA's options include ordering Al Masri to play many of its home games behind closed doors or in a different city to demoting them to a lower division. The club could also be banned from playing for one year.
The government's willingness to risk condemnation by world soccer body FIFA for politically interfering in soccer affairs with its dismissal of the EFA's board and Mr. El-Ganzouri's advice underlines the political sensitivity of the decision facing the Egyptian association.
The government fears that if not properly balanced, the EFA's decision could spark new confrontations with the street-battled hardened soccer fans that played a key role last year in ousting Mr. Mubarak and have since emerged as the ruling military's most militant opponents.
Both the government and parliament are investigating the incident for which 75 people, including nine security officials, were last week charged with murder or negligence. The EFA cancelled this season's premier league shortly after the Port Said incident.
The ultras of Al Ahly and its Cairo arch rival Al Zamalek SC accuse the government and security forces of having at the very least enabled if not encouraged the clash in the Port Said stadium after a match between Al Masri SC and Al Ahly to punish the Cairo ultras for emerging as the most militant opponents to military rule.
Preliminary results of a parliamentary investigation of the Port Said incident blamed fans and lax security for the incident and suggested that unidentified thugs had been involved in the violence, fueling reports that the violence had been planned rather than spontaneous. The circumstantial evidence that Al Masri fans may not have instigated the incident, including messages on Twitter in advance of the game, the failure of the security forces to intervene when the clash got out of hand and unconfirmed reports that military vehicles escorted the thugs to the stadium complicates the penalizing of Al Masri.
Some ultras believe that the clash and the suspension of the league in soccer-crazy Egypt was designed to further isolate the ultras and youth groups that have lost popularity in recent months in a country that has become protest weary and yearns for a return to normalcy and economic growth. Anti-government protests and violent clashes with security forces stand in the way of focusing on the economy.
Potential relegation of Masri could prove to be a financial disaster for the club and impact the economy of a town that increasingly feels that is being singled out for collective punishment. Representatives of Port Said in Egypt's newly elected parliament have warned that they would not tolerate the city being made a scapegoat:
"We call on Egypt's intellectuals and faithful media personnel to stand up against the tendentious campaign to drive a wedge between the residents of Port Said and Cairo and completely isolate Port Said... The Port Said residents are leading calls for the punishment of the culprits. However, they fully reject any attempts to wipe out the name of Masry from Egyptian football. Accordingly, we will not accept any excessive sanctions that will be considered as a collective punishment for the city and the club"
The hostility between Masri and Ahly remained however just below the surface. One of the deputies, Akram El-Shaer, suggested that the Cairo team had provoked the incident by raising a banner that mocked their Port Said opponent. Another signatory of the statement, El-Badry Farghaly, threatened to focus on "the corruption of Ahly's board of directors and their chairman, Hassan Hamdy".
Mr. Hamdy is believed to have been last year under investigation of corruption because of his apparent conflict of interest in being head of the lucrative advertisement department of state-owned Al Ahram newspaper, the Mubarak regime's most important print media outlet as well as chairman of Egypt's most prominent soccer club and until recently chair of the EFA's sponsorship committee at the same time.
Military police last year was reported to have seized three boxes of documents that Mr. Hamdy and then Al Ahram editor-in-chief Osama Saraya had allegedly attempted to smuggle out of the editor's office when they were confronted by publishing house employees who suspected that the boxes contained documents that would prove the two men's involvement in corruption.
The lethal clash between the Al Masri and Al Ahli fans has deepened animosity between the two clubs. Masri fans fuelled the flames by waving flags during demonstrations since the incident on which was inscribed: "They imprisoned my family and brothers for the sake of Ahly," according to Al Ahram.
Leila Zaki Chakravart, a London School of Economics scholar who spent 18 months in Port Said for research recalled in an article in Open Democracy "how the coastal Mediterranean city's self-styled laissez-faire lifestyle of almost sleepy monotony abruptly changed gear on the day each year on which the al-Masri/al-Ahly fixture was scheduled. Tension rose rapidly before the event, and a self-imposed curfew descended ensuring that only the city's male population patronised its streets and public spaces."
All cities and towns in Egypt are, to some extent, football-mad, but Port Said is a city which takes its football fervor to the extreme. Boys learn to dribble from the time they can walk, and street football games are played out as passionately as the city's sole professional football club is supported. Even the club's choice of name provides telling evidence of how the city's distinctive regional brand of martial patriotism, forged during the Suez invasion and later wars with Israel, is concretely rooted in and expressed through the tribal loyalties which football brings out. "Most sporting clubs name themselves after the city (or district) in which they are based, but rather than follow convention and call itself simply 'the Port Said Sporting Club', the chosen title is instead Nadi al-Masri ('the Egyptian Sporting Club' -- a deliberate mirroring of al-Ahly's similarly unconventional choice of name, which translates as 'the National Sporting Club')," Ms. Chakravart wrote.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer on which this story first appeared.