The 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON)—held in June and early July 2019—was not especially well attended, except when Egypt played. Egypt was eventually knocked out in the quarterfinals by South Africa. During semifinal matches, for crowd reactions shots, camera operators zoomed in to avoid the swathes of empty chairs. But they could not do it all the time. In wide shots, anyone watching on television could not help notice the dozens of empty seats and rows with no fans at the continent’s premier tournament. Rather than being a sign of disinterest, these empty seats were engineered by the Egyptian regime, who actively discouraged Egyptian football fans from attending.
The way they achieved this goal tells us a bit about the nature of authoritarian neoliberalism.
Why the Egyptian regime would want to restrict attendance to a sporting event held in Egypt and watched around the world is simple: the dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his reactionary retinue hate crowds. They especially hate crowds of the working class who make up the majority of Egyptian football fans, known as ultras. In the 2011 revolution, the intervention of ultras in Tahrir Square became famous.
Many committed fans of Egyptian heavyweights Zamalek and Al Ahly put aside their legendary rivalry to provide material support to the ongoing occupation. And they brought flare-waving passion, coordinated chanting, and raucous cop fighting to the heart of pitched battles and massive demonstrations. Whatever their actual effect on a revolutionary process that drew from a much larger swathe of Egyptian civil society, it is clear that the security forces of Egypt noted and resented the role of football ultras.
The knee-jerk response to the danger of this crowd was immediate state repression and regulation. Many blame Egyptian security forces for inciting a football riot in Port Said that left 74 dead, and then using the incident to justify severely restricting fan attendance in the league. Under intense pressure, organized groups of ultras of Egyptian club teams have disbanded and major matches have been played in front of completely empty stands.
The instinct to just ban everyone could not work for an international tournament with a global viewership, however. Instead, citing some legitimate concerns about security as justification, Egyptian officials used a fan ID system to restrict and monitor who was attending the matches, while also hiking the ticket prices. Despite widespread outcry and subsequent reduction in the purchase price, tickets remained beyond the reach of the average Egyptian ultra.
Of course, football fandom extends beyond the stadiums as fans still gather in cafes, public squares, and in homes to watch matches before streaming onto city streets to celebrate. But the transformation of the stadium into a place too pricey and over-policed for the vast majority is still a loss for a working class, whose access to public space is increasingly restricted. Using the coercion of market forces to continue and extend repression to eliminate any threat or perceived threat from people coming together, is a hallmark of neoliberalism.
The African Cup of Nations might be over, but these measures and tendencies will long outlive it.