Egypt is using the Africa Cup of Nations as an opportunity to test surveillance technologies on politically conscious fans

Crowds attending the matches of the Egypt national football team have to pass through a series of identity checkpoints. High ticket prices also exclude the working classes, associated with the ultras. (Hossam Rabie )

On 27 June, Alaa Mubarak, son of the former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, revealed on his Twitter account that the organisers of the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN), currently being held in Egypt, had just taken away his FAN ID card one day after he was seen attending Egypt’s match against the Democratic Republic of Congo, without giving him a reason.

First introduced by Russia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Egypt is now issuing FAN ID cards to people who wish to attend CAN matches, both as a means of enhanced security as well as to target political opposition amongst Egyptian fans. Alaa Mubarak, whose father was driven out of power during the revolution of 2011, is nonetheless lucky to have been able to attend at least one of the matches of the tournament, held from 21 June to 19 July 2019.

Egypt, which took over hosting duties after Cameroon’s withdrawal (for reasons related to security and threats from Boko Haram), sees CAN as an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to ensure the smooth operation of a sporting event that draws a large number of visitors. The country has seen a drastic decline in tourism since 2011 and an increase in terrorist attacks specifically targeting tourists, most recently in May of this year. In response to political instability, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military government has gradually tightened its control over extremist groups, political opposition and the media.

The CAN tournament provides Egyptian authorities with an excellent opportunity to test systems of control and military crowd surveillance. Though officially aimed at terrorist threats, these surveillance systems are also being used on those associated with the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square and the ‘ultras’, who are often involved in clashes around the stadiums.

Created in 2007, the ultras are groups of football supporters who have been heavily involved, often personally, in the major political protests of the last few years against the authoritarian government, the police and the military council. The provocative chants of the ultras and their ability to mobilise have made them a thorn in the side of authorities and several groups were classified as terrorist organisations in 2015. El-Sisi, who rules the country with an iron fist, is eager to prevent any political slogans from being chanted from the stands or any riots from occurring during the CAN tournament.

A private company in charge of security, but run by the military

In January 2019, a new security company was discreetly created for the CAN tournament. Headed by three active military generals (including a staff general from the General Intelligence Service) and a senior police officer, the African Security Service Corporation (ASSC) has hired 4000 people to secure the CAN matches.

“Former officers [military and police] trained these young people for a period of two months,” General Mahmoud Taher, the company’s executive director, told Equal Times. In Egypt, where football is extremely popular, passion for the game often spills over into the political arena. With some calling for protests during CAN against human rights violations, the new security company has been tasked with preventing the anger of Egyptians from being broadcast on international networks covering the event, particularly on beIN Sportstelevision, based in Qatar, a country that Egypt considers to be an enemy due to its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The company’s headquarters in northern Cairo looks every bit like a military facility. Instruction boards display the names of the young security workers with the brigades to which they are assigned.

“Ten per cent of the young people employed in security are former officers who already have valuable experience in this kind of service,” says General Mohamed, managing director of the company and member of the CAN organising committee, created by the government.

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ASSC aims to use the CAN tournament as a way of cornering the security market for all future national competitions, including the Egyptian Football Championship, where fans have been denied access to matches since 2012. The company has at its disposal a state-of-the-art technological system that is unprecedented in the Middle East. Inspired by thesystem adopted by Russia for the 2018 World Cup, it includes drones equipped with facial recognition technology that monitor fans in the stadiums.

The Egyptian government simultaneously created the company Tazkarti [‘My ticket’ in Arabic] to handle ticket sales. Although the reason given for its creation was to “facilitate the distribution of tickets and fight against the black market for ticket sales,” the company has another objective: deciding who is allowed to attend the CAN matches.

Tazkarti has implemented a new registration system for tickets. Fans have to provide their name, a copy of their ID cards, their address and a photo to the company via its website. After performing a security check, the company issues FAN ID cards to those selected, which they can use to buy tickets and enter the stadiums. As one former member of Ultras Ahlawy (associated with the club Al Ahly SC, Egypt’s most successful football club) toldEqual Times, this system has allowed security to identify and exclude from matches hundreds of members of ultras and politically conscious young people.

Stopping riots before they start

According to Taher, cameras linked to the facial recognition system are also being placed at the entrances to stadiums, allowing fans to be filmed when they enter. The aim is to deter any outbreak of violence. “The drones that monitor the stadiums during the matches are ready to film any rioters,” he explains. Thousands of police officers remain on alert, both inside and outside the stadiums.

In June 2019, four supporters of the club Zamalek SC were arrested by state security forces and charged with being part of a banned group. Hundreds of other football supporters have been imprisoned since 2013 as part of a campaign launched by the Egyptian state.

In March 2018, police arrested 40 supporters of Al Ahly SC at their homes and workplaces for demanding the release of political prisoners at the club’s match against Gabonese side Mounana FC during the knockout stage of the CAF Champions League, one of the few matches that authorities had opened to the public. Seven months later, security forces arrested 21 other supporters during a CAF Champions League match after they chanted the same demand. The regime thus faces the risk of allowing political criticism to be expressed every time the stadiums are opened.

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Ultras, particularly groups such as Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knight (associated with Zamalek SC), had a significant influence on the country’s political life during the last few years of the Mubarak regime and their hostility towards the police resulted in several riots. In 2012, the police were suspected of complicity in the deadly clashes at the Port Said stadium, where 74 supporters of Al Ahly were killed. Since this tragedy, supporters have been forbidden from attending Egyptian Premier League matches, which are essentially played behind closed doors.

More Instagramers than football fans

Despite all of these restrictions, the Egyptian state still fears the presence of young, politically conscious fans in the stadiums during the CAN tournament, which is being watched by football fans around the world. “The state has probably decided who can and who can’t attend the matches,” says Mohamed Hassan, a fan who attended the Egyptian team’s first three CAN matches. “Look at them, most of them are people coming to take photos to publish on Instagram or social media,” he adds.

The government also decided to triple the price of CAN tickets in order to exclude “many enthusiastic and politically conscious fans who come from poor neighbourhoods,” says Hassan. “The state wants to see the stadiums filled with fans from the upper class who aren’t interested in politics,” says Mohamed Hamdy, an independent journalist who also attended Egypt’s three CAN matches.

Some fans have nonetheless dared to challenge these restrictions. During Egypt’s inaugural match against Zimbabwe, several supporters chanted the name of Mohammed Aboutrika, an exiled former football player listed as a terrorist by Egyptian authorities due to his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Police deployed dozens of informants during the second match according to images circulated on social media and the testimonies that some fans gave to Equal Times.

One of these fans, Bassem el-Sayed, wrote on his Facebook page that police arrested him for wearing a jersey with the number 22, Aboutrika’s number, during Egypt’s match against Congo on 26 June. He said that police asked him both to remove the jersey and to inform them if he had heard fans chanting the former player’s name. Another fan was arrested for the same reason according to some media reports.

Egyptian fans are not the only ones being targeted by authorities. Three Algerian supporters were arrested and ejected from a game on 23 June for waving a sign that read “Get out all of you!”

The stadiums have been close to empty during the matches in which Egypt (which was eliminated from the tournament by South Africa on 6 July) did not play, especially when the national teams of other Arab countries are playing, even though Tazkarti claims to have sold most of the tickets for these matches. Some fans believe that the low turnout is a price that Egyptian authorities are willing to pay to ensure that the CAN tournament runs smoothly.

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