The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) has cancelled this season’s Egypt’s Cup as political fault lines in Egyptian soccer sharpened by the protests that last week toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reverberated within one of Egypt’s most storied clubs.
The cancellation of the Egypt Cup comes almost a month after the EFA suspended all professional league matches to prevent soccer pitches from becoming rallying points for Mubarak’s opponents.
Soccer fans played a key role in the protests that virtually paralyzed Egypt for almost three weeks and are part of a wave of anti-government sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Soccer also played a key in ensuring the military popular support in Egypt. That support was crucial in enabling the military to force Mubarak to resign and take over the country with the pledge to return it to democracy within six months. The military employed soccer as one tool to garner that support by building stadiums and sponsoring the soccer teams that played in them.
Some soccer fans involved in the protests question the military’s ability to keep its promise. They note that the military has effectively ruled Egypt for almost 60 years and is unlikely to voluntarily dismantle its political power and eliminate its economic privileges.
Instead, these supporters expect the military to retain as much of the old structure as possible repackaged with elections and a greater degree of freedom to make it domestically and internationally palatable. Disappointment in the military’s transition of Egypt could undermine the goodwill it garnered with soccer.
Democratization of Egypt, moreover, is likely to lead to significant restructuring of Egyptian soccer in terms of management, which often had close ties to Mubarak and his cronies, as well as club ownership. A majority of Egyptian clubs are government-owned through ministries and state-owned companies.
“It’s quite impossible to continue the cup championship in the current circumstances in Egypt after we delayed the league for six weeks so there is not enough time for all competitions till the end of the season,” Amer Hussein the head of the EFA competitions’ committee, told government-owned Ahram Online.
The EFA has extended the suspension of all football activity until at least March 6 to let Egypt return to normal. The current Egyptian Premier League season has been extended to July. The competition's committee will meet later this week to confirm the dates and reschedule matches.
Lifting of the suspension became a hot potato within the EFA as club managements such as that of crowned Cairo team Al Ahly SC, which signaled its opposition to Mubarak by rejecting a resumption of matches, while the leadership of its archrival, Al Zamalek SC, appeared to support Mubarak’s efforts to create the semblance of Egypt returning to normalcy.
Zamalek striker Ahmed Hossam “Mido” underlined the diverging views, telling Ahram Online that “I appeared only once on TV and I asked the politicians to listen to the protesters and in an interview with Al-Ahram I literally demanded former president Mubarak to retire.”
Many of Egypt’s foreign coaches and players, including Al Ahly’s Portuguese coach, Manuel Jose, have returned to the country since Mubarak’s fall, but Ghanaian players Cofie and Eric Bekoe who play for Petrojet, a premier league team owned by state-owned Egyptian Petrol Company, said they were too concerned about security to rejoin their club.
James M. Dorsey authors The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog