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Left with no Choice: Egypt Allows Fans to Attend International Soccer Matches

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has agreed to allow thousands of fans to attend three international soccer matches despite mounting discontent and a growing number of spontaneous protests in defiance of the country’s draconic anti-protest law.

Concerned that soccer pitches could emerge as protest venues, successive Egyptian governments have barred fans from stadiums for much of the past six years since a popular revolt in 2011 forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. Militant, street battle-hardened soccer fans played a key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak and subsequent anti-government protests.

The government’s decision to allow fans this weekend to attend two African Champions League matches as well as a 2018 World Cup qualifier in September was intended to shield it from being blamed for having prevented Egyptian players from enjoying the vital support of their fans should any of the teams be defeated.

Successive Egyptian governments have repeatedly granted a limited number of fans access to international matches. A one-time government testing in February, 2015 of whether stadiums could be opened for domestic league matches ended with clashes in which security forces killed 20 fans. More than 70 fans were killed three years earlier in a politically loaded soccer brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s concern was reflected in the government’s decision to allow far fewer fans into the stadium for the club matches than for the national team’s game. The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) said only 10,000 fans would be permitted to attend each of this weekend’s African Champions League matches that pit storied Cairo arch rivals Al Zamalek SC and Al Ahli FC against CAPS United of Zimbabwe and Cameroon’s Coton Sport. By contrast, sports minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz said 70,000 fans would be granted access to the stadium for Egypt’s World Cup qualifier in September against Uganda.

Militant supporters of Zamalek and Ahli played key roles not only in the 2011 revolt but also in student protests against Mr. Al-Sisi’s military coup in 2013 that toppled President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Mr. Al-Sisi has since banned and brutally suppressed the Brotherhood that is at the centre of the Gulf crisis that pits a Saudi-UAE led coalition, which includes Egypt, against Qatar. Brief hopes earlier this year that Mr. Al-Sisi would reach out to his opponents were dashed when the government designated soccer icon Mohammed Aboutreika as a terrorist because of his alleged links to the Brotherhood and arrest of scores of militant fans.

Playing the soccer card, however, involves more than just the risk of protests erupting on the pitch. Mr. Al-Sisi’s move to include sports in his contribution to the Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar could lead to a sanctioning of the clubs as well as Egypt’s national team. That would defeat the purpose of opening the international matches to the public.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has warned that the clubs as well as the national team could be penalized for involving themselves in politics by announcing a boycott of BeIN Sports, the Middle East’s prime satellite sports channel that is part of the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television network. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt along with others have demanded that Al Jazeera be shuttered.

BeIN owns the Middle East broadcasting rights for the CAF Champions League in which Zamalek and Ahli are competing this weekend. It also has the Middle East rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

CAF advised the EFA and the clubs that neutrality and a separation of sports and politics was “part of the statutory missions of CAF and FIFA, as well as the obligations of member associations.” It said that it would be “particularly vigilant as regards respect for these principles of neutrality and independence in all future games played under its aegis.”

Mr. Al-Sisi’s fear of soccer fans is rooted in a history that goes far further back than the 2011 revolt. A nexus of students and soccer fans resurrected the Brotherhood in the 1970s at a time that it was also down and out because of a crackdown by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 60s which forced many of them to go into exile in the Gulf.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s worries are compounded by fears that widespread discontent could spark a repeat of the protests in 2013 that paved the way for his Saudi and UAE-backed military coup. The protests, partly engineered by the military, erupted on the back of fuel shortages that many believe were artificial.

Fuel is again at the centre of dissatisfaction as Egyptians, against a backdrop of an inflation rate of 30 percent this month, headed to the petrol pumps to fill up their tanks before subsidies were slashed as part of austerity measures. Belt tightening was a pre-condition for a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The government announced household electricity price hikes ranging from 18 to 42 percent a day before the first of the three matches.

Austerity has worked well for Egypt’s macro-economy with foreign reserves up and a floating Egyptian currency that has stabilized and performed well. The improvements came, however, at the expense of the vast majority of Egyptians, more than a quarter of whom live below the poverty line, and have seen steep price increases.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s failure to offer them a prospect of a better life has over the last year sparked spontaneous protests and widespread grumbling. His iron grip bolstered by draconic laws and brutal repression have so far protected him from more organized dissent. Yet, three years into Mr. Al-Sisi’s rule, the notion of protest is again on people’s minds.

“I am so pessimistic about the future for my kids. I would support a strike of some sort or a large-scale disobedience because this is unsustainable,” said Sayed Shaaban, as he filled up the gas tank of his 12-seat Suzuki microbus for double the price he used to pay. Dozens of drivers had blocked Cairo’s October 6 Bridge a day earlier to protest the fuel price hikes.

Egyptian advances in the African and World Cup tournaments would allow Mr. Al-Sisi to associate himself with their success in the hope that it would help him polish his tarnished image. The risk is that discontent spontaneously boils over at any one of the matches. If so, Mr. Al-Sisi’s effort would seriously backfire.