Ahly Ultras show patience in quest for justice, but for how long?

Sherif Tarek , Sunday 19 Feb 2012

Turning from football fans to revolutionary masses in the Egyptian revolution, the Ahly's Ultras have seemingly become a time bomb ticking due to lack of justice for fallen comrades following the Port Said disaster

Port Said victims
Graffiti of several Port Said victims daubed on one of the American University in Cairo's external walls (Photo: Sherif Tarek)

Almost three weeks after the Port Said football disaster, no tangible legal action has been taken against the perpetrators. Meanwhile, Ahly's main Ultras groups, the Ultras Ahlawy, known as UA07 and centralized in Cairo, and the Ultras Devils, whose members are situated in Port Said, Alexandria, Zagazig and Suez, seem to be running out of patience as they demand swift justice.

On 1 February, at least 74 spectators – mostly from both groups – were killed in the aftermath of a league game between Masry and Ahly, when thousands of home supporters attacked in the stands the Cairo team's fans amidst suspicious passiveness from the Central Security Forces (CSF) at the Port Said Stadium.

Interrogations and investigations are still underway but speculation is rife that no one would be legally held culpable for the earth-shattering incident, given that the culprits who instigated the killing of hundreds in previous other tragedies are still unknown in complete impunity.

Proving their detractors wrong, Ahly's Ultras have maintained composure and showed a notable high degree of self-discipline since the massacre, as described by local media. The ardent Ahly supporters assured they would wait for justice to be served through legal avenues while mourning for their fallen friends, without joining angry demonstrators who clashed with police forces near the interior ministry shortly after the disaster.

The absence of justice for a longer while, however, might well change their current upstanding attitude in the not-too-distant future, the hardcore Ultras Ahlawy stressed.

On 12 February, both connected groups – Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras Devils – announced on their official Facebook pages their intention to hold a march last Thursday. The Ultras Ahlawy emphasized the protest would be peaceful, yet their announcement included a threat to take their rights with their own hands if their demands are not met. After the march, spokespersons of the group reiterated the same stance in a more explicit manner.

"We don't cross the line and we know our role pretty well, but we really hope to see fast retribution and trials," Mohamed Tarek, an Ultras Ahlawy leading member and spokesperson of the group, told Ahly's TV channel on Thursday.

"I wish they [authorities] avoid incurring our wrath and that of the victims' families too," he added in an enraged tone, a statement that is widely regarded as a direct warning for authorities.

Several thousand members from both groups on 15 February, along with others from Zamalek's corresponding Ultras group – the White Knights – embarked on the protest march that set out from the Ahly club's headquarters and settled at the public prosecutor's office in downtown Cairo. As planned, the march demanded justice for their lost comrades and did not see vandalism whatsoever.

Despite their resentment of the police, the vast majority of demonstrators exercised self-restraint when a CSF blue van slowly made its way through the crowd while protesters were still congregating before the club's premises. Several Ahly's Ultras raised their middle fingers to the driver and police passengers as few jeers were briefly heard, but the vehicle passed safely.

"Yesterday [15 February], people saw us as decent, respectable group but I hope they [authorities] show caution to the next phase. They should be concerned over [what] the group, their relatives and friends [could do], because we are all fed up," added Tarek.

Justice absent since revolution

The march might have turned out to be as peaceful as agreed, but the participants' vociferous chants on their way to the prosecutor general's office indeed reflected a great deal of repressed anger.

When they announced the march on social networking site Facebook, the organizers underscored the prohibition of political slogans. Marchers, nevertheless, could not help but slam the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and frequently chant "down with the military rule," apart from blaming the coastal city of Port Said and the Ministry of Interior for the bloodshed.

"After a year and two months [since 25 January 2011], justice has not been served in many other cases," said the agonized Tarek, referring to the fact that over 1000 civilians were killed since last year's revolt and thus far, not a single individual has been convicted with murder or premeditated manslaughter.

Apart from hundreds of casualties on a nationwide scale during the 18-day January revolution, more were killed during clashes in the Maspero district, downtown's Mohamed Mahmoud Street and near the Cabinet office in October, November and December respectively.

Authorities, specifically the SCAF, time after time put the multiple deaths down to the interference of an alleged "third party" that, they say, keeps stepping in to wreak havoc. The repetition of the same excuse triggered a wave of sour criticism against the interim military rulers, with some critics blaming them for their inability to maintain law and order in the street.

Others also accused SCAF figures of instigating mayhem themselves, either out of revenge against revolutionary groups for toppling ex-president Hosni Mubarak – who was also the top military generals' commander-in-chief – or to give a valid excuse – deteriorating security – to the public to keep the junta in power till the constitution is drafted.

Anti-SCAF activists are convinced the military body wants to oversee the foundation of the constitution in order to keep unscathed its authorities, which they believe are unfettered and allow the SCAF to control the nation's vital assets and, more importantly, make the army and its affiliates beyond legal accountability.

Whether or not the widespread allegations on the SCAF are conspiracy theories, the Ultras Ahlawy would obviously settle for nothing but retaliation this time around. "If there is no hope at the end [to attain retribution through the power of law], we will get it with our own hands, even over our dead bodies," Tarek stated without elaboration.

Karim Adel, another Ultras Ahlawy "capo", said during the same interview, "We would like to say to every father and mother of our deceased brothers that we would never give up our friends and brothers' rights ... This is our duty, even if their families want us to refrain from pursuing it."

Looming violence?

During the January 25 Revolution, Egypt's Ultras groups, particularly those of Cairo-based clubs Ahly and Zamalek, acted more or less as cruel foot soldiers while facing Mubarak's security forces, a fact that was cited by many as one of the reasons why the fierce assault in Port Said was schemed.

In the iconic Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the uprising, they stood in the face of brutal attacks from the notorious CSF and hired thugs who assaulted and killed protesters in the infamous Battle of the Camel. Their out-of-the-ordinary organizational skills and experience in clashing with police forces came in handy during the deadly confrontations.

It is not likely, however, for the Ultras groups to once again engage with security forces these days to avenge the deaths of their colleagues, according to Sherif Hassan, an expert on the Ultras movements and a sports journalist who – in the same breath – did not rule out violence as a possible ramification of the unserved justice.

"It is really hard to speculate what they would do, but it's improbable that they would, for instance, travel to Port Said and take their rage out on the city, or to attack the Ministry of Interior's headquarters," Hassan said to Ahram Online. "I would say they might organize more marches to keep on piling pressure, maybe among other actions."

He also downplayed the intensity of the statements released by Tarek, saying, "Let's not forget that till Friday, none of the Masry supporters accused of involvement in the assault was detained, and that's presumably why he was a little bit too emotional while speaking on TV [a day earlier]."

On a football level, nonetheless, Ahly's Ultras are highly expected to fight with Masry's fans on every possible occasion, Hassan believes. "[With assailants unpunished,] the consequences of what happened I would say will last for a decade or so; in every match between Ahly and Masry, mass scuffles could erupt during or after games," he explained.

The Egyptian Premier League has been indefinitely halted in the wake of the Port Said disaster and is likely to be called off this season.

On Saturday, a seminar was held by the Cairo University under the name of "Sport ethics and the political scene." The Port Said disaster was the focal point of the event, which was attended by a host of sports figures, such as former Ahly's football striker Khaled Bebo and veteran pundit and TV presenter Alaa Sadek.

Many of the speakers highlighted football hooliganism, lack of rules implementation on the football scene and lackluster security as chronic problems that increased tensions in the build-up to the Masry-Ahly game.

"Fanaticism is integral part of football anywhere in the world, but Egypt is suffering from it more than other countries because we do not strictly take disciplinary actions in such cases; that's why it grew unbearable," Sadek said.

And Egyptian "unprofessional" sports media were blamed the most. "At least eight TV shows were completely inflammatory ahead of the match," said TV presenter Mostafa El-Adwar, one of the speakers. "Sports media must be revolutionized."

As promoted by sports media, the last infamous Masry-Ahly match was deemed exceptionally flammable days before it took place.

A perennial rivalry has existed between the two teams, and their matches have often been ill-tempered affairs and followed by fan scuffles. However, this year the violence reached unprecedented levels.

Ahead of the same fixture last season on 29 April 2011, hundreds of Ultras Ahlawy members had altercations with Masry's fans and CSF shortly after arriving in Port Said. Local residents at the time claimed the visiting group had created havoc in the city, damaging public properties and even breaking into houses.

Claims of sabotage were vehemently denied by the Ahly group many times, but hotheads in Port Said were still broadly expected to embroil in another brawl with them in this month's match. The actual disaster exceeded all expectations.

On what would appease the fury of Ahly's Ultras after their relationship with their Masry counterparts and the police took a tumble, Sherif Hassan said: "They made their demands loud and clear; they call for the trial of the heads of the CSF, Port Said's security directorate, the city's investigation department and above all the interior minister.

"Holding Masry's fans solely responsible for what happened would never satisfy them," Hassan added.

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