The Egyptian military’s reluctance to authorize a resumption of professional league matches is rooted in Egyptian soccer’s history as a political football. While the Mubarak regime saw soccer as a tool to garner popularity, its opponents frequently turned it into a rare venue for expression of anti-government sentiment.
U.S. embassy cables leaked by Wikileaks describe how opposition leader Ayman Nour, the leader of the Kifaya movement who was jailed in an apparent effort to stop him from challenging Mubarak in presidential elections, was welcomed in 2009 at a soccer match by spectators shouting, "Down with Mubarak."
Memories of the soccer pitch becoming a venue for anti-Mubarak sentiment prompted the Mubarak backed by the military to suspend professional league matches on the eve of mass anti-government protests in late January that forced the president to resign in mid-February.
The military has since taken power in Egypt with a pledge to lead the country to democracy within six months, but has been reluctant to lift the ban on soccer matches. Its reluctance is based on the memory of the soccer pitch being an anti-Mubarak platform, the role of soccer fans in the protests that ousted the president, and the call for the resignation of pro-Mubarak soccer figures during friendly matches played since the president’s fall.
The cables also detail the use of soccer by Mubarak’s sons, Gamal, who the president was believed to be grooming as his successor, and Alaa, to shore up the regime’s image particularly by fuelling nationalist emotions after riots in the wake of crucial 2009 World Cup qualifier in which Algeria dashed Egypt’s hopes of playing in the finals in South Africa.
“Gamal expressed emotion when discussing Egyptian pride after violence following Egypt's World Cup qualifier loss to Algeria,” a cable dated Nov. 25, 2009, said.
The cable noted that Gamal’s “lower profile brother, Alaa, has overnight become a national hero following his harsh anti-Algerian comments.” It said that Gamal, a well-known soccer fan, who until then publicly overshadowed his brother “suddenly found himself the second most talked-about presidential son.”
Describing a presentation followed by a question and answer session about health care reform, the cable said Gamal concluded his remarks by discussing the violence that erupted in the Sudanese capital Khartoum where the match was played.
“He leaned forward in his seat and told the audience that Egyptians must have national pride. Growing increasingly passionate and raising his voice for the first time, Gamal stated that our voice must be heard in the Arab world,” the cable said.
It quoted Gamal as saying that he had stayed in Khartoum to accompany the Egyptian team to the airport to ensure their safe departure from Sudan.
With Mubarak and his sons fanning the flames, the soccer riots brought the world for the first time since the 1969 football war between Honduras and El Salvador to the brink of a soccer-inspired conflict.
Egypt recalled its ambassador to Algeria while Algeria slapped Egyptian-owned Orascom Telecom’s Algerian operation with a tax bill of more than half a billion dollars. Libyan leader Col. Moammer Gadaffi intervened to prevent the dispute from escalating.
James M. Dorsey is a senior research associate at The National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.