By Osama Diab
It’s true that football divides Egyptians today, but it also, paradoxically, unites them on so many other levels.
30 December 2010
Today, once again, Egypt will be divided, but this time not based on sectarian tension between Muslims and Copts or political rivalry between the government and the opposition, but between supporters of Ahly and Zamalek, Cairo’s arch-rival football clubs. People in Egypt take their football seriously, especially when the clash is between Egypt’s and Africa’s most successful football sides.
Even though this pugnacity rarely gets violent, it is commonplace on the derby day for fans of both clubs to avoid watching the game with supporters of the opposite side. Even the one family is divided on that football festival. Ahly fans in the living room, while the odd Zamalek fan would watch it with his fellow Zamalkaweya in some street cafe while sucking on a shisha to keep the stress level under control. It’s also common for the fans to verbally harass the enemies a few hours before the battle breaks out.
But among all this harmless hostility on the day of this Cairo derby, there is also a very positive aspect to it, which is the disappearance of all the forces that divides the people of one nation. Unlike in Scotland, where club affiliation is highly decided by religion and politics, in Egypt, it is not based on either religion, social class, race, and not even geography. An Ahly fan could be a Copt or Muslim, rich or poor, from the very north of the country in Alexandria or from its south in Aswan, old or young, male or female and the same applies to Zamalek fans. On that day, you can see a Coptic and a Muslim teaming up against another Muslim just because of their love for the same club, or an upper class teenage girl screaming in joy at the same time as a binman when their club scores a goal.
Al-Ahly (Arabic for national) traditionally has been described as “the club of the people” as opposed to al-Zamalek which was founded by a Belgian expatriate and was later endorsed by the late King Faruk and even named after him for a few years. Al-Ahly, instead, was founded by a group of Egyptian elites. However, after the 1952 revolution, both clubs were nationalised and fell prey to governmental control narrowing any disparity between them or their identity. Since then, the reds and the whites have dominated the Egyptian football scene, and even though al-Ahly managed to attract a larger fan base, the demographics of their supporters became very similar.
Some Zamalek fans still pride themselves on being fans of the “royal club” due to its link with King Faruk, while Ahly fans pride themselves on the fact that their club is the club of the masses and is the true representative of Egypt, but these are mostly myths created by the fans to forge an identity for their club that is different from their opponents.
In a time of sectarian tension, political clashes, and a deepening social class wound, Egyptians need something to remind them that unity is possible and that the barriers of social class, religion, etc. can be demolished by a simple idea, which in this case is football.
Tomorrow I will be screaming my heart out here in one of London Edgware Road’s shisha bars with my fellow Zamalek fans in Egypt and all over the world in support of our team, leaving behind our religious beliefs, social status, skin colour, gender, etc. For the time being, let us put aside our political views, credos, bank statements and college degrees, and just bring the munchies, drinks, and flags in preparation for this heated clash.