x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Resignation to liberation

In Egypt, much like in the rest of the Middle East, the beautiful game has provided the oppressed with a rare outlet in the times of despotism. Where civil society had been almost fatally undermined, the terraces and the mosque provided the only respite.

A heavy Egyptian police presence watches the crowd during the Al Ahly-Zamalek match in 2007.
A heavy Egyptian police presence watches the crowd during the Al Ahly-Zamalek match in 2007.

2007: A ring of black steel is thrown around the Cairo International Stadium as the Egyptian police suffocate any chance of trouble during a league match between bitter rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek.

2009: An outpouring of anti-Algerian violence before, during and after a World Cup qualifier against Egypt leads to the Algerian team bus, and their fans, being attacked.

2011: Ultras from Ahly and Zamalek fight running battles with the Egyptian police in Tahrir Square, and sing pro-democracy songs untroubled after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Three games, each showing three very different Egyptian stories. It is difficult to comprehend the importance that football carries in Egyptian society. Their players are either national heroes who embody everything good about Egypt or corrupt villains who besmirch the country's good name.

The national team is either a totem of pride or a source of shame and proof of the country's inexorable decline, depending on which way results have fallen.

There is never any middle ground. Yet such is football's popularity that the game has far greater significance than simply 22 men running around a pitch.

In Egypt, much like in the rest of the Middle East, the beautiful game has provided the oppressed with a rare outlet in the times of despotism. Where civil society had been almost fatally undermined, the terraces and the mosque provided the only respite.

Football also provides a mirror with which to understand the undercurrents of unrest. These three football matches between 2007 and 2011 encapsulated the national mood better than almost anything else: resignation, agitation and, finally, liberation.

When I first visited Cairo in 2007, it was to write a story about the Al Ahly-Zamalek derby, the biggest football match in Africa, and arguably the most heated in world football. It was the first time I met Assad, who had only recently set up the Al Ahlawy ultras. Back then it was simply an expression of support for his team, imitating the ultras of his other love, AC Milan. But that soon changed.

In 2007 Hosni Mubarak, the president since 1981, seemed untouchable. He had won a disputed landslide election, securing 89 per cent of the vote. As a journalist for the defunct Daily Star told me, Egypt felt "desperate and hopeless".

Egyptian society was suffocating under his three decades of misrule, so much so that people found refuge in football to escape the hopeless daily grind.

"The two biggest political parties in Egypt are Ahly and Zamalek," Assad said. "It's about escapism."

In the beginning, Ahly had only about 50 ultras and they were hopelessly outnumbered by the police. The regime was not a target then. Instead, the regime allowed Zamalek to be the focus of Ahly fans' ire.

Two years later and Egypt looked a very different place. A crunch World Cup qualifier against Algeria had exposed the moral bankruptcy of Mubarak's regime on a global scale. The government-controlled press relentlessly vilified the Algerians, and four players were injured when their team bus was attacked by 200 stone-throwing Egyptians.

Al Ahram, the government's mouthpiece, said the Algerians had injured themselves to humiliate Egypt. Yet a French television crew and a Fifa representative had seen the whole thing.

The damage was done.

Egypt beat a stunned Algerian team 2-0, setting up a play-off five days later. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, and not just because Egypt lost that play-off in Sudan.

It left Egypt bereft, humiliated and angry. Mubarak's son and future heir, Gamal, had gone on Nile TV to articulate all sorts of conspiracy theories, making him look petty and childish, behaviour unbecoming of a future leader.

It was an important psychological moment: the last person the Egyptians wanted in charge when the elder Mubarak departed was his son. Assad vowed never to support the national team as long as Gamal Mubarak patronised them in such an overt way.

"I hope [Al Ahly] get an Algerian team in the [African] Champions League," he said. "I want to apologise to them."

By 2011, Mubarak was gone, in no small part because of the ultras who had grown from a few dozen in 2007 to more than 15,000 in Tahrir Square alone.

The future of Egypt's revolution is still unclear, and the ultras' raison d'etre, as a fly in the regime's ointment, no longer exists.

Perhaps the two groups of fans will return to fighting each other. But a hint was given by Mohammed, the leader of Zamalek's ultras, as to the direction they might take, what the next defining issue might be, and it does not augur for a peaceful future in the region.

Mohammed said the football fans would agitate for the destruction of Israel. "They are a cancer in our area," he said.

The battle with Mubarak may be over, but the struggle continues.