Football once kept Egyptians distracted, silent, and angry at the wrong people. However, when Egyptians rose up on January 25th to call for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and his regime, the Egyptian Soccer Federation quickly moved to suspend all league matches. Why? After all, as Adel Iskandar claims: “Fundamentally, the sport is the polar opposite of politics,” in Egypt.

It is precisely Iskandar’s explanation of how football is the opposite of Egyptian politics–a celebration of raw talent and work ethic, the ability to rise above humble beginnings, and respect and protection from the state–that allows us to understand its pivotal role in the Egyptian revolution.

In the midst of the eighteen-day uprising, American sportswriter Dave Zirin wrote: “For more than a century, [Egyptian] clubs have been a place where cheering and anti-government organizing have walked together in comfort.” Zirin focuses on the club Al Ahly (“The National”) that was founded originally as a political collective. Today Al Ahly boasts the largest number of fans in the country–there are approximately 50 million Ahlawy in a country of 80 million.

Footballers in Egypt are political. And not all footballers or coaches are pro-revolution.

Mohamed Aboutrika, star footballer for Al Ahly as well as beloved philanthropist, was previously quite well known for his political activism. On the “Friday of Departure,” Aboutrika publicly displayed his support for the revolution at a jummah prayer in Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, the coach of the Egyptian national team, Hassan Shehata, and Zamalek coach and former national team player, Hossam Hassan, joined pro-Mubarak protests.

While the sentiments of individual players and coaches are difficult to draw definitively, the historical context of these clubs do clarify why Al Ahly “ultra fans” would be so dedicated to the revolutionary cause while Zamalkawy would be opposed to the change. Al Ahly was founded as an Egyptian-only anti-colonial organization. Zamalek, on the other hand, has a history resembling that of Egypt itself–from maintaining the status quo (Thakanat Qasr Elnil Club) to pro-monarchy (Farouk Al Awal Club) to pro-elite and police. It remains complicated. The team colors remain especially significant. Al Ahly wears the red of the pre-colonial Egyptian flag while Zamalek dons the white of the British imperial class and high-level Egyptian military and elite.

In terms of protest strategy, Ahlawy were a step ahead prior to January 25th. Ultra Ahlawy also crucially possessed the power of numbers. There are other large Egyptian club teams–Al Masry and Ismaily, for instance–but Egypt’s club loyalties tend to fall on either side of the Zamalek/Ahly rivalry. It is, essentially, a rivalry between the rich and the poor, the elite and the oppressed, the mansions and the crumbling slums. The banker driving a BMW (or being driven) down Kasr el-Aini street is undoubtedly Zamalkawy. The 15-year old selling figs in 45 centigrade weather is absolutely Ahlawy. The teams themselves may not always represent this division (they are still professional footballers), but it is clear from the revolution that the fans do.

As both the African Champions League and African Cup of Nations draw nearer, what happens within the clubs and Egyptian national team will be very significant.  This Saturday, March 26, Egypt’s experienced team goes up against South Africa (the 2013 Cup’s host nation in place of Libya), after asking for – and being denied – postponement of the first qualifier.–Sophia Azeb

Further Reading