Egypt matches a security test for troubled nation
Two international football matches, including a World Cup playoff, are set to take place in Egypt's turbulent capital, putting security there to the test after violent street protests and bloody security crackdowns followed a military coup.
Football has long been intertwined with Egypt's political unrest, even before the protests that forced autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011. Fans often clashed with security forces inside and outside stadiums during his more than two-decade rule.
But in the time since Mubarak's ouster, the unrest has become deadly and concerns have grown over whether Egypt can host high-profile football matches amid the unrest.
Egypt's home match against Ghana deciding which African team will go to Brazil next year will be Nov. 19 in the military-owned stadium in the capital. In a test run for security forces, Cairo's Al-Ahly club will host South Africa's Orlando Pirates in the second leg of their African Champions League final this weekend in the same stadium.
In a sign of confidence, authorities lifted the ban on spectators, saying fans will be allowed into the 30,000-seat stadium for both matches - the first international football match in Cairo in two years. It's also the first home game in Egypt hosting a huge crowd since a riot at a club match in Port Said in 2012 killed 74 people, mostly Al-Ahly fans.
However, Saturday's Egypt Cup final between Ahly's arch rivals, Zamalek, and another Cairo club, Wadi Degla, will be behind closed doors and far away from the capital. Zamalek's hard-line fans, known as Ultras White Knights, said they will defy the spectators ban, vowing in a statement posted on their Facebook page that ''fans attendance at the Egypt Cup final is neither debatable nor negotiable.''
''The Ultras White Knights will be on the battlefield,'' the fans said.
Politics run deep in football in Egypt. Al-Ahly's fans, also known as ultras, prominently participated in the 2011 demonstrations against Mubarak. They frequently clashed with police inside and outside stadiums during his rule.
But the Port Said riot showed fans' dark side. More violence erupted this year when a court acquitted seven police officers over the melee while confirming death sentences for 21 rioters. Fans rampaged through the heart of Cairo, storming the Egyptian Football Association's headquarters and setting it ablaze.
Al-Ahly have played all of their Champions League group-stage matches behind closed doors and far away in the Red Sea resort of El Gouna, about 430 kilometers south of Cairo. The Egypt Cup final will be played in front of empty stands there Saturday.
But it's the national team's final match of World Cup campaign later this month that is putting American Bob Bradley's side and the military authorities under pressure. Egypt's surprisingly one-sided 6-1 loss to Ghana in the first leg of the playoff caused much fury in the battered nation.
Many supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his leadership are pleased that the national team is likely to miss Brazil next year, saying that the military leadership would gain politically if the Pharaohs qualify for the World Cup.
Hussein Khaled, an 18-year-old high school student, said he's upset over the public being more worried about the Pharaohs' loss than the security crackdown and killing of Morsi supporters.
''Many of those people who were sad because we lost a match were never sad for all those who died,'' Khaled said.
With ongoing unrest, Ghana's Football Federation again appealed to FIFA to move the match to a neutral venue. Football's governing body last week declared Cairo safe enough to host the match.
The Air Defense Stadium, where the two matches will be played, is part of a military-owned sporting complex in eastern Cairo.
The stadium was last on international display in October when Egyptian military leaders staged an extravagant celebration to mark 40th anniversary of the start of the 1973 Mideast war with Israel. Military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attended the ceremony that included fireworks and Arab pop singers performances while crowds of Morsi supporters and backers of the military poured into the streets and turned on each other, leaving 51 people dead in clashes.
''The military is under a tremendous pressure to stabilize the country and show that life in Egypt is getting back to normal,'' said Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics. These are sporting events, he said, ''but Egypt is in a critical phase of a low intensity war with Islamic insurgents and gripped by political and social turmoil and that has major implications on security.''
Associated Press writer Tony G. Gabriel contributed to this report.