x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A complex political game is playing out on Egypt’s home soil

Egyptians are united behind their football team but not about who should lead the country after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and then Mohammed Morsi

‘Football is the one thing that unites [Egyptians] and is their main source of pride,” wrote popular blogger Mahmoud Salem, reflecting the mood before the two World Cup qualifying matches that pitted Egypt’s Pharaohs against the Ghana Black Stars. But instead of unity, November 19 sharpened the divisions on Egypt’s convoluted political playing field.

When Egypt lost the second leg that night, Cairo was more relieved than disappointed, because the match, watched by 30,000 people, ended peacefully. Ghana had trounced the Pharaohs 6-1 in the first leg, leaving next to no hope that Egypt could overcome such a huge deficit on home soil.

As the nation braced itself for defeat on November 19, it had two other portentous events in mind.

It was the 59th birthday of Gen Abdul Fatah El Sisi, the minister of defence and deputy prime minister, who is widely regarded as a hero for his role in ridding Egypt of Mohammed Morsi.

It was also the second anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street protests in Cairo, where 47 people died and thousands were injured during several days of clashes with security forces. The demonstrators were calling for the resignation of Hussein Tantawi, then military commander-in-chief, who was succeeded by Mr El Sisi last year.

All of this put Egypt’s political camps in a quandary.

Many citizens were eager to pay tribute to the man they tout as a future president. But even those relieved by the removal of Mr Morsi, following the June 30 protest, found the show of support by the army inappropriate on the anniversary of Mohammed Mahmoud, since those who were allegedly responsible for the protesters’ deaths under the army’s transitional rule have yet to be charged.

The supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood whose leaders are facing military trials, were wondering whether to renew their persistent demands to reinstate Mr Morsi, or use their restraint as a bargaining chip in reconciliation talks.

The pro-army group Tamarod had incited the public to oust Mr Morsi cancelled its rallies at the last minute, which they said was to rob Brotherhood supporters of a chance for clashes.

Three people died during last year’s Mohamed Mahmoud anniversary, when protesters demanding justice for victims of the 2011 demonstrations were violently dispersed. Planning a major football match on the Mohamed Mahmoud anniversary this year seemed a calculated move. But after the home team lost the first game with Ghana, interest in the second leg waned.

In downtown Cairo, cafes put up large television screens and set out hundreds of chairs which, at the kick-off time, were barely half full. The stadium, however, was packed. It was only the second time that large crowds had been allowed to attend a match since the Port Said stadium riots claimed 72 lives in February of last year. The first occasion was eight days earlier, for an Africa Champions League final where excited Al Ahly fans were subdued with tear gas even before the game had begun.

Many feared violence on November 19, including the Ghana football authorities that had wanted the match to be played in a closed stadium, citing Egypt’s unstable security situation. The nation’s three-month curfew ended only days before. Tahrir Square was hemmed in by tanks and barbed wire last Friday, supposedly to forestall pro-Morsi protests that never materialised.

The next day the tanks were gone and Tahrir’s freshly-landscaped rotunda had been endowed with a circular structure of about 4 metres in diameter, bearing an inscription dedicated to “the martyrs of the January 25 and June 30 revolutions”. The memorial was inaugurated on November 18 by the interim prime minister. That night, antimilitary protesters destroyed the monument.

“It looks better now, more Egyptian,” said a resident of Tahrir.

Destroying the Tahrir monument was a small but significant act of defiance at a time when the army is lionised in the media and on the streets. You either support it or the Islamists, the logic runs.

Pro-revolutionary forces objecting to the army’s pre-eminence since June 30, are now at odds with popular opinion and unwillingly aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, for whom the army is an arch enemy.

People clustered around the rubble in Tahrir hours before the game. By evening, several thousand pro- and anti-El Sisi supporters had gathered in the square and nearby Mohamed Mahmoud Street, with small fights breaking out. Late that night, clashes with security forces resulted in dozens of injuries and two deaths. On November 20, it was business as usual for Cairenes.

Although happy to put it behind them, November 19 highlighted a growing predicament for many citizens. Backing the army, once the clear choice for those who objected to an Islamist state, has created a fault line that runs through Egypt’s fractured political landscape, where various groups whether pro-revolutionary, Islamist or otherwise, have spent more time either lauding or condemning the military than in forming cohesive political parties offering viable plans for Egypt’s development.

A new constitution has yet to be agreed upon. Recent draft laws regulating protests, countering terrorism and banning graffiti, meanwhile, mirror the Mubarak-era Emergency Law, compromising rights in exchange for security.

The events of November 19 served as a reminder that unconditional support for the army may not be enough to secure Egypt’s goals.

Maria Golia, author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt, lives in downtown Cairo.