Photo: Hewy, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
The local café (ahwa in Arabic) is where men usually go to watch and talk about football in Cairo.

Nationalism and violence in Egyptian football culture

During the Mubarak era football flourished in Egypt. The national team had a winning streak, the state poured money into the sport and media interest was enormous. The Arab Spring somewhat cooled the football fever in the country. In revolutionary Egypt, football became synonymous with the overthrown regime’s nationalistic propaganda machine. Today interest is again on the rise in Africa’s most successful footballing nation of all time.

“There is no doubt that Mubarak used football as a tool in his nationalistic propaganda,” says anthropologist Carl Rommel, who wrote a thesis on Egyptian football culture at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

“The state invested large sums in football during his time in power and owned ten clubs in the top division. For example, the military had three teams and the Ministry of Interior – two, and the state-owned oil and gas companies one each. The peak of the football frenzy came during the years 2006 to 2010, when the Egyptian national team won the Africa Cup of Nations three times in a row,” he explains.

Interviews and observations
Rommel’s thesis is based on field studies from when he lived in Cairo (2011-2013). He interviewed sports journalists, club officials, players, coaches and supporters. A lot of his research is also drawn from participant observation, a scientific method that does not create the same distance as an interview between a researcher and a source.

“I went to a lot of games to get a sense of the ambience and talk to supporters. A couple of nights a week I went to cafés that show the matches and attract men with an interest in football. To get a wider range of inputs, I varied my café visits, going to different parts of town.”

In 2011-2013 the Arab Spring still had a strong tailwind and there was a revolutionary atmosphere. This was a time when interest in football was on the wane, largely because of its close ties to the Mubarak regime, but also because of the increasing use of violence at football grounds.

“Towards the end of the 2000s, the most dedicated ultras groups became more dominant in the stands. They sang, danced and organised tifos. Their involvement was often also political: they shouted slogans and engaged in social media. Every now and then they would end up in fights with the police, who regarded them as a threat to the regime. Later, during the uprising against Mubarak in 2011, they became a major political force.”

The media industry and the spiral of violence
An important part of Rommel’s research is focused on the football media industry.

“During the heyday of football hype, the last years of the Mubarak regime, there were half a dozen TV stations devoting most of their programming to football. Hosts like the former goalkeeper for the national team, Ahmed Shoubair, and former police officer Medhat Shalaby became national superstars. They had three to four hour long prime-time talk shows dedicated to football, mixed with entertainment and tittle-tattle to reach a wider audience.”

The price of broadcasting rights for the top division increased more than a hundredfold, from 1.5 million Egyptian pounds before 2007 to 160 million for the 2011-2012 season. After the revolution of 2011, media interest dwindled and the spiral of violence reached its peak at the football stadium in Port Said in February 2012, when 72 people were killed and more than 500 were injured in riots involving supporters.

“There are strong indications that the police were behind it. The aim was to frame the ultras of the visiting Cairo team Al Ahly because of their political activism. All the casualties were Ahly supporters; it was not a clash between two equally strong sides.”

After the tragedy of Port Said, the military enforced empty stadium matches, a move that further reduced interest in football. The talk shows ditched their old focus on football and moved on to something else.

After 2013
Rommel’s thesis deals with the time up to the spring of 2013, when he moved back from Cairo to London. He is today doing research at the University of Bern, where among other things he is writing a book (soon to be published) on Egyptian football culture.

“In the book, there is a concluding chapter about the period since 2013, based on some briefer fieldwork that I have done in Cairo in recent years. This has been a turbulent period, in which – to sum up a complex story – the political winds have turned a number of times. But there is no doubt that interest in football is today again on the rise in Egypt. After having failed three times in a row to reach the Africa cup of nations, the national team has finally qualified for this year’s cup in Gabon. The premier league matches are still played in empty stadiums, but a limited number of spectators are allowed to attend international games, both of the national team and of club teams in the African Champions League,” says Carl Rommel.

FACTS | Football in Egypt

  • The Egyptian national team, nicknamed “The Pharaohs”, is with its seven victories in the Africa Cup of Nations the most successful team on the continent.
  • There are 18 teams playing in the top division. The most notorious rivalry is between the two Cairo teams, Al Ahly and Al Zamalek, which historically have dominated the league.
  • The traditional home of the national team is Cairo International Stadium. It was built during the Nasser era and has an all-seated capacity of 74,000 spectators. This is also where the derbies between Al Ahly and Al Zamalek used to be played; but after the Port Said Stadium riot no high-risk matches have been played there.
  • When spectators are allowed to attend home games of the national team, they take place in a heavily guarded arena, in a military zone in the desert outside Alexandria.
  • For those who want to gain a better understanding of the hype surrounding Egyptian football during the last years of Mubarak, Carl Rommel recommends the 2009 movie Wahed-Sefr (One-Zero). It captures, with critical contemporary eyes, the nationalistic frenzy in Egyptian football culture.
  • In the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, which is currently being played in Gabon, the Egyptian national team is, for the first time since 2010, taking part in a major international championship. The first game, against Mali on Tuesday 17 January, finished 0-0.

Further reading from the NAI library

Text: Henrik Alfredsson, henrik.alfredsson@nai.uu.se
Photo: Hewy, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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