A decision to indefinitely postpone the lifting of an eight-month ban on professional soccer in Egypt constitutes a milestone in an increasingly successful campaign by militant fans to root out corruption, force reform of the country's hated security forces and ensure that senior officials responsible for the deaths of supporters and protesters are held accountable.
The decision by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) constitutes a major victory for the highly-politicized, street battle-hardened fans or ultras, the country's largest civic group after the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, in a tug-of-war with the police and security forces, the country's most despised institution because of its role in enforcing repression under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
The decision, at least for now, signifies that years of vicious street battles between the ultras and the security forces have partly shifted from stadiums and streets to politics. The indefinite postponement prompted by a veto on a resumption of soccer by the security forces intent on undermining the ultra's increasing street-based power and concerned about further tarnishing their image in potential clashes with the fans comes after the lifting of the ban was twice delayed in recent weeks and the ultras' successful campaign against Mubarak-era soccer officials.
It also comes amid mounting criticism of the government's failure to hold officials accountable for the deaths of some 850 people during the 18 days of last year's mass anti-government protests that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office and the killing of 74 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC in a politically loaded brawl in February in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
More than a 100 people were injured on Saturday in clashes between supporters of President Mohammed Morsi and critics, including ultras, angered by the acquittal of 24 people on charges of having participated in the Battle of the Camels during last year's protests. The ultras played a major role in those protests and served as their defense force against security forces and thugs who attacked the protesters on camels and horses.
Mr. Morsi's attempt to recover ground backfired when he this weekend had to back down on his firing of the prosecutor general in the case, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, who defied his order to relinquish his post and be dispatched to the Vatican as Egypt's ambassador. The president's defeat highlighted the difficulty he is likely to encounter in seeking to reform the judiciary, which supported the military during its rule in the 17 months following Mr. Mubarak's resignation and Mr. Morsi's election in July, as well as the security forces.
The ultras have vowed to prevent a resumption of soccer, suspended since the Port Said incident, as long as those responsible for the worst incident in Egyptian soccer history have not been held accountable. Only nine mid-level security officers are among 74 people standing trial in a slow moving legal process for their role in what many Egyptians see as an attack that was designed by the police to teach the ultras a lesson and cut them down to size.
The ultras have in recent weeks stormed the EFA headquarters several times, attacked Al Ahly's training ground and targeted media whom they accuse of complicity in support of their demands that also include the withdrawal from office of Mubarak-era EFA and club officials, an end to corruption, depriving police and security forces of their responsibility for security in stadiums and a reform of the police.
The ultras' campaign has split the soccer community with clubs hurting financially as a result of the suspension, players worried about their jobs and Mubarak-era officials concerned about their careers. Players and supporters earlier this month held rival demonstrations in front of the sports ministry in favor and against a resumption of professional soccer.
The EFA's newly elected president Gamal Allam, has vowed to improve relations with the ultras -- a tough task that may have been slightly eased by the indefinite postponement of a resumption of professional soccer. That task is further complicated by the fact that Mr. Allam is widely viewed as being close to Mubarak associate Hani Abou-Reida, who was forced by the ultras, emboldened by their successes and the power of the street, to withdraw from this month's race for the soccer body's presidency,
Besides forcing Mr. Abou-Reida, a member of the executive committee of world soccer body FIFA and a close associate of disgraced FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam, to withdraw, the ultras also forced former Al Ahly goalkeeper Ahmed Shobeir to drop his candidacy for the presidency and sparked an investigation of Al Ahly chairman Hassan Hamdy. The Illegal Gains Authority this month froze Mr. Hamdy's assets and banned him from travel on suspicion that his wealth stemmed from corrupt dealings. Egypt's prosecutor also announced that he would investigate financial irregularities in the 2006 African Cup that was organized by the EFA.
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 where this story first appeared.