Heightened security in Egypt as Africa Cup of Nations kicks off
CAIRO - Egypt is taking unprecedented measures to secure the Africa Cup of Nations, the top football event in Africa, which kicked off June 21.
Tens of thousands of policemen and secret police were deployed in the four cities where matches of the competition are to be played, including in Cairo, which hosts 12 teams, the largest number ever hosted by an African city for the Africa Cup of Nations.
Police vehicles were continually on the move in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia and the security presence was beefed up at the 16 hotels where the 24 participating teams are staying.
“The security establishment is on maximum alert for the competition,” said Mohamed Nour al-Din, a former Egyptian assistant interior minister. “There is a huge list of points policemen have to secure.”
Sites for police to secure include the stadiums, roads to the venues, hotels and areas near the hotels. Apart from the 24 teams, police also must secure fans attending the matches.
Egyptian officials have said the smallest security hazard can spoil the competition, which is taking place in Egypt for the fifth time. Egypt has won the Africa Cup of Nations seven times since it was first contested 62 years ago. Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia participated in the first tournament in 1957.
The competition is viewed as more than just a football event. Cairo, which had been politically far away from Africa for decades, wants to use the competition in getting more involved in the continent.
Cairo also wants to use the competition to attract tourists, especially from African countries that qualified for the tournament. It wants to prove that it is a safe tourist destination.
Stress across Egypt is on making sure the event is organisationally a success, even if the Egyptian team does not win it.
During a visit with the national team June 15, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not ask players to win the competition or score goals but to behave in a way that reflects Egypt’s civilisation, culture and peaceful nature.
The same thoughts are widespread among Egyptians but there is also strong support for national team players and interest in the tournament.
Egyptian sports authorities placed huge screens on major squares to allow the general public to watch the matches. Egyptians can watch the matches on free local channels, including state television channels.
Ahead of the competition, the Supreme Media Committee, the national media watchdog, asked viewers to buy television antennas designed to receive match signals. Millions of Egyptians bought the antennas for around $23 each, breaking the monopoly the Qatari network beIN imposes on broadcasts of cup matches.
The concentration of fans around the huge screens for the matches adds to the security concerns but this is a job, security analysts said, police carry out easily.
“True, the Africa Cup of Nations is a huge event but Egypt has a lot of experience organising and securing these events,” said retired police General Farouq Megrahi. “Nonetheless, the thing is that there is more stress on security during this competition and this boils down to the size of the security threats our country faces.”
Egypt battles a branch of the Islamic State in Sinai and militias affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. This fight is overshadowing security arrangements in relation to the Africa Cup of Nations.
Fans entering stadiums for the matches will be carefully searched. The movement of the fans during the matches will also be closely monitored.
Tickets for the matches are bought electronically, which means that only those who have tickets in their hands are allowed to approach the stadiums.
Apart from the thousands of police and secret police guarding the matches and the stadiums, Egyptian authorities are using unmanned aerial vehicles to secure the matches and detect abnormal action inside or around the stadiums.
“These are all necessary measures if we will ensure the success of the competition at the security level,” said retired police General Ashraf Amin. “Egypt is more than capable of ensuring security at the event.”