Best known for his brutal repression of critics, Egyptian-general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al Sisi has invited protesting militant anti-government soccer fans to investigate a 2012 politically loaded soccer brawl in which 72 supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC died.
Mr. Al Sisi's invitation contrasted starkly with Al Ahli's response to the protest on the fourth anniversary of the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history by Ultras Ahlawy, the club's militant supporters who played a key role in the toppling in 2011 of president Hosni Mubarak and protests against Mr. Al Sisi after he came to power in a military coup in 2013.
Anticipating a harsh government response to the protest, Al Ahli denounced the ultras for using the commemoration of the incident on the club's ground to demand that Mr. Al Sisi's predecessor, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led Egypt as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) immediately after the fall of Mr. Mubarak, be held accountable for the death of their comrades. The cub also banned fans from attending the club's training sessions
The brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said occurred on Mr. Tantawi's watch. The ultras believe that government-hired thugs caused a stampede in the stadium and beat Al Ahli supporters to death with security forces standing aside and the doors locked from the outside.
An appeals court has sentenced 11 people to death and more than a dozen others to lengthy prison terms on charges of having been responsible for the brawl.
Mr. Al Sisi issued his invitation in a phone call to a popular television program which he said he was making to address the ultras. He said the ultras should appoint ten of their members to form a committee that would be able to investigate the incident. The president did not elaborate on what kind of access the committee would have or on what ground rules it would operate.
It was also not clear what prompted Mr. Al Sisi's invitation but state-owned Al Ahram newspaper noted in its coverage of the president's remarks that "many disgruntled youths are unhappy with what they deem heavy-handed practices by security forces. Scores of Islamist, liberal and secular activists have been jailed since Sisi was elected as president in June 2014. Many fell foul of a restrictive protest law as Egypt's interior ministry cracked down on dissent," the newspaper said.
Mr. Al Sisi struck a conciliatory tone by admitting that "it's us who are not able to properly communicate with them (disgruntled youths). We are the ones who are unable to find common ground. I'm exerting lots of efforts in this matter and I'm aware that I will need time. Finding the balance between security measures and human rights is a sensitive and delicate issue which needs lots of efforts," he said.
Members of various ultras groups, including Ultras Ahlawy, formed the backbone of the student protests against Mr. Al Sisi that have petered out as a result of arrests, expulsions from universities and the turning of universities into security force-controlled fortresses.
A Cairo court last month sentenced 15 supporters of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of Al Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek SC, to five years in prison with hard labour for allegedly attempting to assassinate the club's controversial president, Mortada Mansour.
Mr. Mansour's already strained relations with his fan base deteriorated further when he as a newly elected member of parliament he last month changed the words of the official oath to swearing to respect "articles of the constitution" rather than the constitution itself because its pre-amble honoured the 2011 popular revolt.
"25 January brought the Muslim Brotherhood and 30 June brought Sisi - whose side are you on?" Mr. Mansour asked in a television interview after the incident. The 2011 popular revolt erupted on January 25; mass anti-Brotherhood protests on 13 June 2013 paved the way for Mr. Al Sisi's coup.
While the ultras have yet to respond to Mr. Al Sisi's invitation, they are unlikely to take him up on his offer without guarantees that any investigation will be fully independent and have full access. The ultras are likely to further use the invitation and Mr. Al Sisi's lowering of his armour to press for a re-opening of stadia to the public.
Fans have largely been banned from attending league matches for much of the last five years. An attempt a year ago to partially lift the ban failed when security forces killed 20 supporters of Zamalek who had been trying to get into a stadium for which a limited number of tickets had been made available.
The ultras have insisted that their past attendance of training sessions and youth handball and soccer matches without incident proved that there was no basis for the closure of the stadia.
In his phone call to the television station, Mr. Al Sisi suggested the investigation because "In incidents involving huge masses, many facts get lost. It's always difficult to determine the truth behind what happened.... I call on the Ultras to select 10 of their members whom they trust to be part of a committee to look into all the details concerning this case and determine what more can be done," Mr. Al Sisi said.
Mr. Al Sisi's invitation came at a time that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are considering reducing substantial funding because of the president's poor performance economically, emerging differences in Saudi and Egyptian attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and differences over Syria.
The ultras-backed student groups have close ties to youth groups of the Brotherhood that Mr. Al Sisi sees as the source of all of Egypt's problem. Saudi King Salman since coming to power has cautiously moved away from his predecessor's crackdown on the Brotherhood.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.