CAIRO: Even as Egypt struggled against South Africa in the last 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday, the home fans took time to honor a recent tradition.
In the 20th and 72nd minutes of a match that the Egyptians were to lose 1-0, hundreds of supporters switched on their mobile phone flashlights — a simple tribute to victims killed in deadly stadium clashes after the 2011 revolution.
“This is our tradition that we pull out our mobiles,” said 19-year-old Mostafa Atef.
“The blood of martyrs has nothing to do whether we support (rival clubs) Al Ahly or Zamalek.”
The timing of the flashlight tributes reflect the numbers of fans killed in two separate incidents.
There is still uncertainty at the number of fans who died in February 2012 when security forces stormed the field at the Port Said stadium of Al Masry during a match with Cairo-based Al Ahly.
Some reports claim 74 fans died that day, others say 72. Whichever, it was one of the world’s deadliest football clashes.
Three years later, almost to the day in 2015, 20 Zamalek fans — some reports say 22 — died after a mass stampede at the June 30 Stadium’s gates, prompted by police use of teargas and live bullets.
That led to the reinstatement of a total ban on attending domestic games which is still in effect.
For sales representative Islam Abdel Sadek, 30, the tragedies are a reminder that security in football stadiums will still be necessary after the tournament.
“Egypt is strong and safe now,” said Sadek. “But it’s a poignant memory and we are praying for the martyrs. So of course we will always turn our lights on.”
In a tournament designed to promote the country’s international image, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi told the national squad that preparations for international audiences were more important than their results on the pitch.
Under El-Sisi, who led the army’s overthrow of President Muhammad Mursi in 2013, a focus on political stability and crushing dissent has meant that even football has been heavily scrutinized by the security forces.
The Cup of Nations has been a testing ground for fan attendance when the domestic league resumes.
“Fans going back to the stadiums has been a great thing for Egyptian football,” said Ahmad Yousef, editor of website KingFut.
Authorities, though, have been selective in their choice of who attends matches with a new online system requiring a background check using an Egyptian national ID.
“When the league does restart after the tournament and whether Ultras fans will make their way back to the stadiums, that’s when trouble could start again,” he added.
In recent years, devoted fan groups known as the ‘Ultras’ have been politically active in mobilizing young, mostly male football enthusiasts.
The Ultras Red Devils of Al Ahly and White Knights of Zamalek have been caught up with, though, in a government crackdown.
Many online users, bitterly disappointed by the Pharoahs’ defeat by South Africa, pointed to the dozens of Ultras in jail as a sign of Egypt’s fear of football fans.
Less then 24 hours after the South Africa defeat, the whole of Egyptian football appears to be in disarray with federation president Hani Abou Rida sacking coach Javier Aguirre and then announcing his own resignation, paving the way for a vast shake-up within the organization.
Whether that will change the fans’ relationship with the security forces remains to be seen.
In the meantime, supporters like Atef will continue to flash their lights.
“We are honoring these martyrs so their memory lives on,” he said.