The Ultras movements were significant actors within the political tensions that Egypt witnessed after the 25 January Revolution in 2011, and they have been present in the Egyptian public sphere since 2007.
However, the events that took place in January 2011 and afterwards added a political dimension to the Ultras movements even if they were not themselves originally political in character.
The politicisation of the Ultras movements caused internal fragmentations and a transformation in the roles of the movements. The commitment of their supporters to support a particular football team did not change, but the manner in which this commitment was reflected changed in the period of politicisation.
The Ultras are a problematic phenomenon within Egypt’s public sphere. These movements date back to 2004, when they were largely virtual ones having few practical manifestations on the ground.
However, in 2006 Egypt hosted the African Championship, and social changes began to make themselves felt in the presence of fans within the country’s football stadiums, including a new alliance between social classes.
Members of the country’s upper, upper-middle, middle, and lower classes were brought together on a single platform in the course of the 2006 tournament. Nationalism and patriotism became paramount.
In 2007, these sentiments were translated into action with the birth of the Ultras movements, led by the two most influential football clubs in Egypt, Ahly and Zamalek.
The Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knights were the first two movements to penetrate the Egyptian public sphere. They were followed by other movements, like the Ultras Yellow Dragons in Ismailia, cheering for the Ismail team, the Ultras Green Eagles in Port Said cheering for Al-Masry, and the Ultras Green Magic in Alexandria cheering for Al-Ittihad.
Here we need to notice two points.
First, social media helped to enable the emergence of the actual movements on the ground, and the Ultras movements in particular have significantly benefited from social media in comparison to other social and political movements.
Second, the Ultras movements have brought a new culture of cheering to Egyptian football stadiums that the country has not seen for years.
The politicisation of the Ultras movements has had various causes. Incidents like the Port Said massacre in 2012 and the events at the Air Defence Stadium in 2015 added new political dimensions to these movements paired with the political tensions present at the time.
However, the Ultras movements were not political movements at the time of their initiation. The politicisation of the movements was a result of larger developments in Egypt’s public sphere.
The role of individuals in the movements of which they are part should also be noted. There were organisational failures within the Ultras movements concerning their mode of mobilisation within the public sphere, notably with regard to challenges to the police.
Problems between the Ultras and the police have been present since the beginning of the Ultras movements in 2007, and these in turn created a political context for the Ultras movements even if a strictly political agenda was never present.
The problematic relationship between the Ultras movements and the ministry of the interior, responsible for securing fans at football matches, has had a lot to do with the lack of proper organisation of the fans within the stadiums.
Logistical capacities regarding the proper policing of football matches were not at their best in Egypt in the period from 2007 to 2013. The Port Said events in 2012 then largely stopped football activities altogether along with the role of the authorities in policing them.
The lack of a national football championship sidelined Egypt from the continent’s football events, and it did not qualify for the African Championship in 2013 and 2015, something which had never been seen in the history of such qualifications.
However, the recent Africa Cup of Nations football tournament held in Egypt offered some answers to this dilemma. A main problem had earlier been the lack of proper organisation, but the tournament in the summer of 2019 introduced various logistical methods that could be used in Egyptian stadiums even outside tournament periods and could help to end the contentions between the fans and the authorities.
Many of the problems that Egyptian football has witnessed were addressed in the course of this tournament, specifically those that relate to how the fans enter stadiums, how they are seated, and how their conduct can be kept in line with the relevant laws and regulations.
On a continental level, Egypt was able to revive its football through the recent African tournament. But questions still hang over Egypt’s national championship and the role of the fans within it.
Introducing a proper organisational structure will help to depoliticise the Ultras movements and put an end to their contentious relationship with the security services.
The platform of the conflict has never been a political one, but rather has been organisational as a result of the fans feeling that their rights were not being recognised. Egypt has now shown that it is capable of organising football matches in a far better manner.
Yet, the question remains of whether we have now seen the end of the Ultras movements. On the level of organisation and mobilisation, these movements have lost a lot of credit. Many have burned their banners, conveying the message that they no longer exist.
However, the culture of cheering that the Ultras movements have brought to Egypt’s football stadiums remains, and it is constantly being manifested.
The introduction of new logistical techniques might have a positive effect on the overall culture of football cheering in Egypt. The Ultras movements might have organisationally died, but the culture they brought with them survives.
The new football season will raise many questions, including whether it will see a return of the fans after the successful organisation of the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.
* The writer is a senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The waning Ultras movements