By James M. Dorsey
Criticism this week by football player Ahmed Al-Merghani of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s hard-handed repression of dissent and failure to defeat a mushrooming insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula signals mounting discontent in Egypt.
Al-Merghani’s comments on his Facebook page are indicative, because they suggested the degree to which Al-Sisi’s cult-like popularity has diminished, barely two years after he toppled elected president Mohamed Morsi in a military coup and a year after the former general was voted into office.
Football frequently serves as a barometer of political trends in the Middle East and North Africa. US intelligence officials have said they routinely attended football matches in the region to glean clues as to where a country is headed.
One official predicted developments in Egypt, when he told Quartz in 2013 that autocratic regimes frequently cover up burgeoning dissent by blaming it on hooliganism.
Addressing Al-Sisi, Al-Merghani said: “You told the people come out and let me fight terrorism. The people filled the streets even though (fighting terrorism) should’ve been your job in the first place. Ever since then everyone is dying, civilians, soldiers and policemen, and where are you? All we ever get from you is words.”
The player described Al-Sisi as a “failure”, and asked: “Is a state of mourning not going to be declared for them and the television soaps cancelled? Or are they not as important as the state prosecutor?”
Al-Merghani’s remarks came days after jihadist insurgents took their fight to a new level with coordinated attacks in the Sinai in which at least 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed; the assassination of prosecutor general Hisham Barakat, the most senior official to have been killed in Egypt in a quarter of a century; and a police operation against a gathering of leaders of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood members who allegedly were abused and executed.
Al-Merghani was fired for his comments by Wadi Degla, the only privately owned club in Egypt’s premier league.
The significance of Al-Merghani’s comments reminiscent of political expressions of retired star Mohamed Abu-Trika, is that they broke with a tradition in which Egyptian players often saw the country’s strongman as a father figure and refrained from associating themselves with any form of dissent.
Authorities earlier this year froze Abu-Trika’s assets in a travel agency that was suspected of having had links to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation immediately after Al-Sisi’s ascent to power. Abu-Trika has long been believed to have Islamist sympathies.
A groundswell of support for Abu-Trika emerged on social media immediately after the asset freeze. A number of football players, in another rare brake with players’ reluctance to endanger their status, were among those who expressed solidarity with the former player.
Al-Merghani’s comments further reflected Al-Sisi’s inability, unlike his predecessors, to employ football as a tool to cement his popularity and divert attention from popular grievances. Al-Sisi’s failure to do so is closely linked to the deteriorating security situation in Egypt.
Concern that football stadia like in the waning years of President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in a 2011 popular revolt in which militant fans played a key role, would become venues of protest persuaded Al-Sisi to keep stadia closed to the public during matches. A Cairo court last month banned militant football fan groups as terrorist organisations.
Al-Sisi’s one attempt to reopen stadia in February was immediately shelved after 20 fans were killed by security forces at a stadium in Cairo during the first match for which a limited number of tickets were made available.
In a reflection of Al-Sisi’s refusal to hold accountable police and security forces notorious for their brutality and introduce security sector reform, authorities charged 16 fans with having provoked the second worst incident in Egyptian sporting history in cohorts with the Brotherhood.
Relatives of some of the defendants and their lawyers charged that at least some of the fans had confessed as a result of torture. After five days’ of searching, Mahmoud Hemdan said he found his 21-year old brother Ashraf and teenage nephew Ali “beaten and tortured” at a Cairo police station.
“Ashraf is innocent. He told me he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks to private parts of his body,” Hemdan told Agence France Presse.
Ali’s mother, Nagat, said she was shocked when she saw her 14-year-old son Ali in jail. “I couldn’t hug him – his body was covered in bruises and marks from electric shocks,” she said.
Yasser Othman, another defendant, told a judge in a video posted online that he was “hung from my arms and given electric shocks several times. They even threatened to rape my wife”.
Mounir Mokhtar, a lawyer for some of the 13 defendants in custody asserted that “all were tortured to extract confessions.” Police have denied using torture. Some of the confessions, including that of Ashraf Hemdan, were broadcast on Egyptian television.
Al-Merghani’s criticism of Al-Sisi’s failure to restore stability to Egypt reflects growing frustration among politicised youth, many of whom are football fans who played a key role in protests on university campuses and in popular neighbourhoods since the former general seized power.
Amnesty International, in a recently published report entitled ‘Generation Jail: Egypt’s youth go from protest to prison,’ said: “A generation of young Egyptian activists that came to the fore around the ousting of repressive ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011 is today languishing behind bars.”
It said that the “mass protests have given way to mass arrests, as 2011’s ‘Generation Protest’ has become 2015’s ‘Generation Jail'”.
Militant football fans have warned that the Al-Sisi regime’s repression is radicalising youth who feel they no longer have anything to lose. A host of shadowy, hitherto unknown groups have emerged in recent months claiming responsibility for acts of political violence.
“This is a new generation. It’s a generation that can’t be controlled. They don’t read. They believe in action and experience. They have balls. When the opportunity arises they will do something bigger than we ever did,” said a founder of one of Egypt’s foremost militant fan groups or ultras.
Added another original ultra: “Things will eventually burst. When and where nobody knows. But the writing is on the wall.”
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title