Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his flailing Muslim Brotherhood have turned to foreign policy and soccer to improve their battered image in advance of a planned mass anti-government protest at the end of this month and mounting calls for his resignation.
In a bid to distract attention from his domestic woes, curry favor with the United States and Gulf countries and restore Egypt to a leadership position in the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Morsi chose a Cairo stadium to announce to his rallied supporters that he was cutting diplomatic ties with the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The president's ruling Muslim Brotherhood at the same time said it would field candidates for the board elections of storied Cairo soccer club Al Zamalek SC and other major football teams. The move is an effort to gain control of clubs in a soccer-crazy country whose huge fan base played a key political role in and since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
The fans, one of the largest civic groups in Egypt, are likely to participate in a mass opposition Tamarod (Rebel) march on the presidential palace scheduled for June 30, the first anniversary of Mr. Morsi's inauguration as Egypt's first freely-elected post-revolt leader, to demand his resignation and early elections. Egyptian media report that a petition calling for Mr. Morsi's resignation has so far attracted 15 million signatures, two million more than the 13 million votes the president garnered a year ago. A significant number of militant soccer fans are believed to be among the signatories.
Criticism of Mr. Morsi has mounted in the past year as a result of his failure to halt Egypt's stark economic decline, his haughty leadership style that many believe harks back to Mr. Mubarak's authoritarianism and his perceived efforts to Islamize Egyptian society.
Militant, highly politicized, well-organized and street battle-hardened soccer fans have in the last year played a key role in protests against Mr. Morsi. The conviction to death of soccer fans and perceived leniency towards security personnel in a trial earlier this year against those responsible for the death last year of 74 fans in Port Said in a politically loaded brawl sparked a popular uprising in Suez Canal cities and violent protests in Cairo.
Prominent Egyptian artists, writers, actors, filmmakers and intellectuals camped out in front of the culture ministry in Cairo to demand the resignation of Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz because of his alleged efforts to force the arts to conform to Islamic conservatism called last week on the militant soccer fans to protect them against attacks by supporters of Mr. Morsi.
The Brotherhood's intention to increase its influence in soccer clubs, many of which are financially troubled as the result of long suspensions sparked by Egypt's political turmoil since 2011, is the movement's latest effort to come to grips with the country's most popular pastime. Brotherhood officials initially toyed with the creation of their own soccer clubs but then opted for a promise to clean the sport of corruption, including the replacement of Mubarak-era officials.
Zamalek coach Jorvan Vieira warned last month that "despite not getting their salaries, the players do their best in the matches. The management must solve the problem as I can't ask them to play while they are losing their concentration."
While Mr. Morsi's breaking off of relations with Syria strikes a popular cord among Egyptians who are largely abhorred by Mr. Al-Assad's brutal crackdown on his opponents, his attempt to gain control of soccer clubs risks backfiring against the backdrop of mounting calls for his resignation.
Islamists hardly endeared themselves to soccer fans by recently suggesting that their rivalries were a Zionist plot to destabilize Egypt. Al Hafiz TV, a Salafi television station critical of Morsi that promotes a return to the 7th century lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors made the insinuation by airing a video portraying an alleged ultra-Orthodox Jew as advocating the instigation of strife between various groups in Egypt, including soccer fans.
Gamal Abdallah, a member of the Brotherhood's sports committee, announced the movement's intention to gain control of clubs on the website of the group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. "The group is considering fielding candidates or endorsing certain contenders in some posts during Zamalek's board of directors election... The group also intends to take part in all club elections in the coming period," Mr. Abdallah said.
The Brotherhood is likely to back Mortada Mansour, a lawyer and Brotherhood supporter, who is challenging incumbent Zamalek chairman Mamdouh Abbas, a wealthy businessman, in elections scheduled for September.
Militant Zamalek fans last month interrupted a news conference by sports minister El-Amry Farouk intended to announce new regulations for clubs and unveil his development plans because of his dismissal of Mr. Abbas and imposition of a temporary board in advance of the September elections. The fans have since demonstrated and blocked roads to demand the release of militants detained during the storming of the minister's conference.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog where this story first appeared.