New board, but same old problems continue to dog Egyptian football as Al Ahly dig heels in

The indefinite postponement of the Cairo derby between Al Ahly and Zamalek that was to take place last weekend has thrown league into disarray with Al Ahly refusing to play any matches until they face their arch-rivals first

Al Ahly, in red, are refusing to fulfil any of their Egyptian Premier League fixtures until they play Cairo rivals Zamalek, after their match last weekend was postponed over security concerns. Reuters

Egypt’s Fifa-appointed Football Association finds itself grappling with the same problems that plagued the previous administration, with the country's domestic league again thrown into chaos over security concerns.

Appointed in July, the five-man association has announced the indefinite postponement of the league’s most eagerly-anticipated fixture - the Cairo derby between Al Ahly and arch-rivals Zamalek that was to take place last weekend - on the advice of security officials.

Al Ahly responded by refusing to play any Egyptian Premier League matches until after the derby is played, including one against Al Gouna slated for Wednesday.

The EFA is standing its ground and on Sunday named the match officials to take charge of the Al Gouna-Al Ahly tie on the Red Sea coast. If Al Ahly fail to fulfill the fixture, the 41-time national champions stand to be docked six points and fined 200,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh45,347).

Zamalek are currently second in the table with 10 points from four matches. Al Ahly are third with nine points from three games. The two Cairo teams are Egypt’s most storied and decorated clubs.

Security concerns have cast a dark shadow over Egyptian football since the death in 2012 of more than 70 fans in a post-match riot in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, one of the world’s deadliest football tragedies. Most of the victims were Al Ahly fans. Three years later, about two dozen fans died in a stampede outside a military-owned stadium in a Cairo suburb after police fired tear gas on fans waiting in line to see the match.

Egypt's police and security forces have always had a say in how football in the country is run, but the 2012 and 2015 tragedies have given them veto power over venues, the number of spectators allowed into stadiums as well the fate of fixtures designated as a security risk. That, in turn, meant that proceeding with a reliable schedule for fixtures was virtually impossible. Moreover, suspected bias by association officials in favor of one club or another has produced countless disputes.

"The security folks normally have intelligence that forces them to order the postponement of matches or changes in venue," said football writer Mahmoud Al Makhbazy of Cairo daily Al Akhbar. "But they never give details."

Over the past three weeks, two marathons, one that was to be held at a Red Sea resort and another in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, have been cancelled at short notice, prompting speculation that the reasons were security-related.

Security has been heightened in Cairo and elsewhere in the country since small and quickly dispersed anti-government protests took place in the capital and four other provinces on September 20. The protests unleashed the biggest security crackdown in years, with the country’s chief prosecutor saying around 1,000 people were detained in connection with the protests.

Hundreds have been released since, but one rights group - the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms - has put the original number of arrests at more than 3,000, a figure that could not be verified by The National.

Street protests have been rare since a law banning them was adopted in 2013. Offenders face up to five years in prison.

On Monday, Al Ahly chairman Mahmoud Al Khateib, a star striker in the 1970s and 1980s, was meeting at his Cairo home with youth and sports minister Ashraf Sobhy to discuss the latest dispute. There was no immediate word on any agreements or concessions, but some analysts believe that Al Ahly could be persuaded to play Al Gouna on Wednesday as scheduled and Zamalek on October 28.

However, Zamalek’s maverick chairman Mortada Mansour has made it clear in a series of interviews that he would not accept any rearranged date against Al Ahly because it falls four days after the CAF Champions League round-of-32 second leg against Senegal’s Generation Foot.

Disputes between Al Ahly and Zamalek over the league’s schedule marred the last season, with EFA board members blamed for messing up the top-flight competition. Those officials were forced to step down after Egypt crashed out of the Africa Cup of Nations to South Africa at the last-16 stage.