In highly-awaited Cairo derby, football not the only concern
Cairo's two main football rivals, Al-Ahly and Zamalek, will face off Saturday in a match without fans at a stadium near Alexandria, more than 200 kilometres from the capital.
The stakes are high on the field -- Zamalek lead the Egyptian league with 53 points and must win to keep their advantage over Al-Ahly, who are just two points behind.
But they are even higher off the field.
In a season marked by organisational disarray and top-flight clubs sniping at each other and at the Egyptian Football Federation (EFA), analysts are worried that hasty preparations ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations might fall short.
The North African football powerhouse is set to host the tournament for the fifth time after stepping in when Cameroon was deemed not to be ready.
"The (derby) will be played without the public at the request of security services," Ossama Ismail, EFA's media officer, told AFP.
On Saturday the 80,000-seater stadium, west of Alexandria, will be open only to staff from both clubs and a handful of journalists.
Any time the two teams play, the derby inevitably turns into a "sensitive subject". With the Africa Cup of Nations nearly three months away, authorities want to "avoid any problems between supporters".
In recent years, devoted fan groups known as the ?Ultras? have been politically active in mobilising young, mostly male football enthusiasts.
The Ultras Red Devils of Al Ahly and White Knights of Zamalek have been caught up though in the wide sweeping crackdown that authorities have unleashed since the military ouster of elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who succeeded Morsi to become president in 2014 and was re-elected virtually unopposed last year, a focus on political stability and crushing dissent has meant that even football has been heavily securitised.
After the turmoil that gripped Egypt after long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak was unseated in the 2011 revolution, football turned from a national past-time to a lethal flashpoint of violence, especially on the sidelines of matches involving powerhouses Al-Ahly and Zamalek.
In February 2012, 74 Al Ahly fans were killed in clashes after security forces stormed the field at the Port Said stadium in a match with Al Masry, the local team, making it one of the world's deadliest football clahes.
Three year later almost to the day, 20 Zamalek fans died after a mass stampede at the Cairo stadium's gates and police firing live bullets.
The total ban on attending games was reinstated after the 2015 incident and has been in effect ever since.
The Ultras of both teams announced they were disbanding last year, leading authorities to show a degree of willingness to allow a gradual return of supporters to the stands.
Strict security arrangements are still enforced with police providing permits to fans authorised to attend.
But the barbs traded between Zamalek and Al Ahly on television and social media throughout the season has solidified the authorities' resolve to keep fans away.
While the stadium will be empty on Saturday, the derby will be televised.
"We feel the tone has changed. This is something that didn't happen before, or not that much," Mahmoud Diaa, from football website Goal, told AFP.
He sees the security response as shortsighted so long as underlying tensions between the clubs, their fans and the federation remain.
"Every year we hear that the public will be back but it doesn't happen," he said.
He is hopeful though that hosting the Africa Cup of Nations will represent "a golden opportunity for the return of Egyptian football".
The tournament is due to take place during the searing Egyptian summer, from June 21 to July 19.
? 2019 AFP