By James M. Dorsey
Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may have instigated this weekend's invasion of the soccer pitch during a crucial African championship match between crowned Cairo club Zamalek SC and Tunisia's Club Africain, according to Egypt's government-owned Al Ahram newspaper.
Al Ahram quoted an eyewitness as saying that he had heard a man instructing others on his mobile phone to invade the pitch. The witness advised his interlocutor to be careful that their identities as affiliates of ousted President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) are not discovered.
The Al Ahram report, reflective of widespread distrust of Mubarak, who toppled in February by mass anti-government protests, contrasts starkly with the fans public apology for the invasion and offer to cover the cost of any damages.
UWK members denied the reports of provocation and said they had failed to control hooligans within their ranks. They said some of their members had not been able to control themselves when they found themselves for the first time in the stadium with no security force to keep track of them. Security was virtually absent during the match.
The purpose of the provocation would have been to penalize the Ultra White Knights (UWK), the militant, violence-prone Zamalek fan group modelled on similar organizations in Italy and Serbia, because they played a key role in the fighting with security forces and pro-Mubarak supporters during the anti-government demonstrations. It would also create a sense of lack and order in contrast to when Mubarak was in power.
Finally, proponents of the belief that Mubarak supporters provoked the invasion argue that it would spark cancellation of the Egyptian Premier soccer league and therefore create the impression that Egypt was still in turmoil.
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) said on Monday that the league would remain frozen. The league was suspended in late January to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point. Egypt’s military rulers reluctantly last month agreed to revive the league in mid-April. The EFA said it was not clear if the league would restart this season.
The pitch invasion brought to the surface a mounting battle within the fan group between the UWK's highly politicized founders and more educated younger members and more nihilistic youth who have swelled its ranks. "Its minds against muscle," said Gemmyhood, widely seen as the godfather of the ultra movement in Egypt.
The split was evident immediately after the match as many UWK members celebrated their successful disruption of the match while wiser members were stunned and shocked fearing that this would undermine their popularity and ability to act as a political pressure group. Many leaders feared it could signal the end of the ultras that have organized groups associated with several Egyptian Premier League clubs.
James M. Dorsey is a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer