Osasu Obayiuwana: Politics threatens to knock top off Egypt’s football pyramid

In the tumultuous period that has followed the toppling of two presidents, Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, over the past three years, with the country remaining in a state of political flux, the huge damage done to Egyptian football cannot be exaggerated.

Its clubs are yet to recover from the severe hit to their finances, as a result of the abandonment of the 2011/2012 national championship, following the death of 74 fans, after a match in Port Said between Ahly and Masry.

That tragedy led to the imposition of a draconian ban, forbidding fans from attending subsequent league games throughout the country.

(My previous piece in July 2013, ‘Egypt takes another uncertain turn’, provides further background – http://www.insideworldfootball.com/osasu-obayiuwana/12864-osasu-obayiuwana-egypt-takes-another-uncertain-turn).

That ban remains in force nearly two years after it was first imposed.

And things have taken a turn for the worse, as a dispute between the country’s government and officials of the top two clubs – Ahly and Zamalek, the most successful clubs in African football (they have 13 CAF Champions’ League titles between them) – could lead to Egypt’s suspension from international competitions.

Hassan Hamdy, Ahly’s chairman for the last 11 years, was summarily removed from his position by Taher Abou Zeid, a former Egyptian national team player and 1986 Africa Cup of Nations winner, who is the current Minister for Sport.

Hamdy and members of the Ahly board were initially given the boot on January 18, following the club’s decision to exclude itself from the $10 million one-year TV contract that the league, with the consent of the other clubs, had signed with Egypt Radio and Television Union (ERTU), the national broadcaster.

Ahly, which has the greatest number of supporters in the country, refused to be a part of the ERTU deal and opted to sign a separate rights contract for its own games, worth $5.8 million, with the Future Media Company.

Hamdy and his colleagues, refusing to meekly accept the interference of Zeid in the affairs of their club, have persuaded Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawi to override the decision, to ensure they remain in office, until a date is set for board elections.

Despite the PM’s order, Abou Zeid is yet to formally revoke his decision.

Elections to Ahly’s board were supposed to have taken place six months ago but were postponed, as a result of the chaos in the country that led to the forced removal of Mohamed Morsi.

Zamalek, Ahly’s Cairo archrival, have not had a better time. They have been functioning with an interim board, headed by Kamal Darweish, since October, after the same sports minister dismissed the previous board led by Mamdouh Abbas.

The pathetic situation at two of the continent’s leading clubs begs the baffling question as to why Egypt’s government has any degree of involvement in the management of clubs, which is a clear violation of FIFA rules forbidding government interference.

And while the aforementioned palaver is going on, the Sports Minister, selected to lead the Egyptian delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, has legal troubles of his own to contend with.

Abou Zeid was recently sentenced to a 12-month jail term and fined 10,000 Egyptian Pounds (about $1,400) for failing to implement a court order made last year, which ordered the dissolution of Ahly’s board.

To cut a very long story short, it is a royal mess all round.

Following complaints made to FIFA about the prevailing situation, Jerome Valcke, its secretary-general, has warned the country that it is at grave risk of being banned.

In his letter of January 22, to the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), he said: “We [at FIFA] understand that the Egyptian Ministry of Sports has indeed taken some unilateral decisions, which, amongst others, appear to prevent the assembly of Egyptian clubs, such as Al Ahly, from taking place…

“We must underline the relevance of Article 18 Paragraph 2 of the FIFA statutes, which stipulates that every member [association] shall ensure that its affiliate clubs can take all decisions on any members regarding membership independently of any external body…

“FIFA urgently requests that the EFA commences procedures with the Egyptian Ministry of Sports so that the aforementioned undue interferences cease immediately.

“Should the current situation persist, we would have no choice than to refer the case to the appropriate FIFA bodies for consideration and possible decision, including sanctions which might lead to a suspension of the EFA.”

The crisis in Egyptian football is certainly unmasking the iron-grip that its government has on the management of sport.

“The trick, which nobody outside of Egypt understands, is that all sports clubs and federations are affiliated to the government,” a knowledgeable Egyptian journalist told me.

“The government does not regard their actions as interference but they see it as their right.”

The government’s domineering influence in the management of sport in Egypt, backed by a law made in 1975, recently led to the intervention of the International Olympic Committee.

At the end of a meeting in Lausanne last November, the government promised to prepare draft regulations respecting IOC principles within six months, to be passed into law before the end of this year.

However, the Egyptian government was said to have made an undertaking not to “interfere in any manner whatsoever”, in the affairs of sports federations and clubs, a commitment which Valcke made reference to, in his letter to the EFA.

With a February 5 deadline hanging over the Egyptians, “to render an account [to FIFA] of the progress made on the situation,” it will be interesting to see how things pan out.

The twist and turns in Egyptian football are certainly not ending any time soon. Stay tuned.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1635404178labto1635404178ofdlr1635404178owedi1635404178sni@a1635404178nawui1635404178yabo.1635404178usaso1635404178

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.