“Women who have dyed red hair or who are wearing tight clothing will not be able to enter the club. Nor will men who wear chains around their necks, and smoking in public places is prohibited.”
These are the latest decrees announced by Mortada Mansour, president of the Cairo-based Egyptian soccer club, Zamalek. Mansour didn’t just threaten, he kept his word. In March, Mansour revoked the membership of Maha Mohsen and ordered security personnel to forcibly remove her from the club’s stadium – and advised her husband to divorce her – because she had dyed her hair red.
Mohsen didn’t remain silent and posted a video in which she related what happened on the day she entered the club and ran into Mansour by chance. She complained to the Egyptian Justice Ministry and to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi who just months ago launched a campaign to empower the standing of women in Egyptian society.
On Sunday was the Cairo derby, the “summit match” as it is called by fans, between the two top teams in Egypt: Zamalek and Al Ahly. One can assume that among the tens of thousands of people in the stands there were quite a few women in tight jeans or with red hair, as well as men wearing necklaces. Mansour is not yet able to dictate fashion at soccer games, but the man who has aspired to the Egyptian presidency has no intention of stopping.
As president of an elite organization like Zamalek, he not only controls the huge sums of money flowing into the club’s coffers, he is also responsible for its professional reputation in Egypt and throughout Africa, and sometimes on the international stage where a victory for Zamalek is a victory for Egypt and its honor is the honor of the motherland. A president of a club like Zamalek holds sway over thousands of members and hundreds of thousands of fans who, when the right moment comes along, can be wielded as a political power. Thus, it was that groups of fanatical soccer fans, “ultras,” played a role in the demonstrations of the Arab Spring that began in 2010, first against the demonstrators and later on their behalf; they even led to a turning point in the repression of the protests.
Mansour, a lawyer, is a member of the Egyptian parliament who tried twice, unsuccessfully, to run for the presidency. He earned a bad name for himself when he spoke out against the Arab Spring demonstrators and defended the good name of then-President Hosni Mubarak prior to his resignation in February 2011. Mansour even participated along with his son in the “Battle of the Camel,” in which an organized group of men on camels and horses charged demonstrators in Tahrir Square, wounding many.
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Mansour’s big mouth is also familiar to Egyptians from his appearances on television where he has attacked judges, singers, artists and journalists. With Zamalek’s TV station at his disposal, Mansour has insulted actresses and singers, as he did six years ago when he mocked the Lebanese singer Maya Diab, saying she was a “man who had become a woman… she shows off her legs but all I can see are a man’s legs.” Diab responded by posting a picture of her shapely legs on her Instagram page.
Mansour, who is himself married to an actress, has twice been suspended from the presidency of the Zamalek club and almost lost his parliamentary immunity for insulting his counterpart at Al Ahly. This year he was reelected president of Zamalek for a three-year period. Despite his outrageous comments and behavior, he continues to enjoy the support of President Sissi. After all, the leader of Egypt wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of a club president who can mobilize hundreds of thousands of fans, not to mention one who is a multimillionaire and could finance a small state. That is the other side of soccer clubs.
A ticket for a match in Egypt costs only around $4, but in a country where the minimum monthly wage is $171, that is an enormous sum for most citizens – some 50 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Ticket sales make up just part of the revenue of the elite Egyptian soccer clubs, including Zamalek, Al Ahly, Al Jazeera and Heliopolis, to name a few. There are some 750 sports clubs in the country, which boasts some 19,000 soccer teams with a quarter-of-a-million players.
The big money comes from annual membership fees that only the elite can afford. Membership is not a season ticket but confers the right to vote on the management of the club and to have a say in the appointment of coaches and in player purchases, enables one's family to have access to the club’s facilities, which include luxury restaurants and well-tended grounds – and above all constitutes a status symbol and a means for showing off one's wealth.
Membership costs between $20,000 to $60,000 a year, similar to the price of an apartment. Not everybody can become a member, even if they can afford the fees. Candidates have to provide a certificate of education and the higher their academic level, the cheaper the fee. They also have to provide a certificate of integrity from the police and undergo a personal interview. Club regulations go into great detail about members’ rights: what happens when a member dies, what rights accrue to a member’s wife should they divorce (she can continue to be a member so long as she pays her way), what reasons would lead a member to be stripped of his rights (if he damages the good name of the club), and other conditions, each club determining its terms according to its status.
The math is simple: $50,000-$60,000 × 80,000-100,000 = a money machine like no other in the Egyptian economy. With those huge sums, Mansour can buy himself a license to insult women and to have his photo taken with the president whenever he pleases.