Behind Egypt President Sissi's Strategic Embrace of a Cairo Soccer Team

Not one to shy away from the use of force, the president seems these days to be more attentive to the voice of the citizens.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, surrounded by top military generals, as he addresses journalists following an emergency meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Cairo on January 31, 2015.
AFP

The fraying nerves of Egyptian citizens were put to the test again last week, when a policeman killed a 24-year-old taxi driver during an argument over payment for transporting furniture. Two weeks ago, Egyptian policeman had beaten up two doctors who apparently refused to falsify medical records. Colleagues in the medical establishment called off a planned strike in response, but their protests were not lost on President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi: He has promised to investigate the incident and even ordered Interior Minister Magdi Abdel Ghaffer to submit legislative and regulatory proposals to restrict the police's activities, within two weeks.

It’s not that Sissi has a problem with using force, God forbid. Since taking office in July 2013, he has gotten rid of hundreds of political opponents, most of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but also individuals affiliated with secular liberal movements. But even Sissi understands the difference between the “legitimacy” he can grant himself to battle “terrorists,” as Muslim Brotherhood members are indeed defined, and the assault on or killing of citizens because policemen think themselves immune to any punishment.

The Egyptian leadership remembers well that the large-scale protest in January 2011 that provoked eruption of the revolution came in response to police brutality, when officers beat to death Khaled Said, a resident of Alexandria. The hundreds of protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square then called the police enemies of the public who were acting on behalf of President Hosni Mubarak. The protesters distinguished, however, between hostile police and the military, which within days became “partners in the revolution.” “The army and the people are one hand,” the demonstrators chanted at the time, thus paving the way for the Supreme Military Council to use unprecedented leeway in taking over and running the country.

Sissi also established his own legitimacy based on making this distinction between the military and the police. He knew that this legitimacy would crumble if he would let the police go back to acting in an unrestrained manner.

Perhaps that is also the reason he decided to reopen the investigation into the massacre at a soccer game in February 2012 at Port Said, when 74 people were killed and more than 500 were injured in a riot that broke out during a game between the Ahly and Port Said teams. The Ahly fans believed that the temporary military government at the time, under Gen. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, started the rioting to hurt them, in revenge for their actions against the Mubarak regime during demonstrations at Cairo’s Tahrir Square and also, and primarily, to neutralize a threatening locus of opposition.

Eventually, a local court sentenced 21 of the 73 defendants to death, and gave lengthy prison terms to others, but it acquitted seven of the nine policemen suspected of involvement in and inciting the events – and none of the regime leaders at the time was put on trial.

The verdicts and punishment left both sides dissatisfied and the result was a series of appeals. The case went on until the end of 2015 and some of the defendants are still awaiting retrial.

Earlier this month, on the fourth anniversary of the Port Said incident, Ahly fans protested against Tantawi, the country's interior ministry and the police force, and demanded that those responsible be put on trial, including Tantawi. Sissi, who has so far shown an extreme lack of tolerance for his critics, whether on Facebook, in caricature or satire, realized he had to treat these protesting soccer fans with kid gloves.

In a “spontaneous” phone call to the program “Cairo Today,” which “by coincidence” was discussing the fans’ protest, Sissi invited the Ahly fans to send 10 representatives to commission that he had established to re-examine the events. The fans were in no hurry to respond. They wanted to know who would be on the panel, what exactly it would investigate and who would be eligible to testify. By and large, they don’t trust a government commission appointed by the president.

At the same time, Sissi’s public declaration on the programhas already raised his opponents’ hackles. They claim that he is granting legitimacy to a group of extremist, lawless individuals who threaten public order and thus undermine the court system, which is itself investigating the affair.

A few of the critics wonder why the police are letting the fans demonstrate without a permit, ignoring the law that prohibits such protests while, on the other hand, they violently arrest others. Sissi has no intention of responding to such questions. He has a country to run, and if that means embracing Ahly fans, that’s the way it will be. Those seeking positive ramifications of the 2011 revolution can meanwhile take comfort in the fact that the voice of the Egyptian public is being heard more loudly now, and it is having an effect. Granted, not in parliament, but at least on the soccer pitch.