Egypt's banned Ultras keep a low profile, for now

Sherif Tarek , Wednesday 27 May 2015

Recently banned by court order, Egypt's Ultras football fan groups have been conspicuously quiet of late. For Ultras members, however, this is more because they regard the ruling as moot

Egyptian hardcore football supporters (File photo: Reuters)

A police truck near the headquarters of Cairo's Ahly Club is trying to make its way slowly through a massive crowd, mostly of gloomy-looking teenagers wearing red and white football jerseys as well as colourful scarves.

Sections of the crowd can be heard voicing disapproval and anger at what they saw as the audacity of the police vehicle. An air of anticipation follows.

One of the young men raises his middle finger to the driver and a few colleagues bang on the truck with their palms. But others immediately cool them down as the vehicle leaves before heightened tensions develop into action.

On that day, 15 February 2012, thousands of Ahly's Ultras groups and the White Knights, the Ultras group of city rivals Zamalek, who turned out in solidarity, were gathering at Ahly Club to stage a protest calling for retribution against the police, among others.

A fortnight earlier, over 70 Ahly Ultras fans died after a match in Port Said, when masses of Masry supporters attacked them in the stands. Aside from perennial hostility between the clubs' fans, loyalists of the coastal outfit had been enraged because Ahly's Ultras wreaked havoc in Port Said the year before, ahead of another game.

The police — despite a heavy presence at the Port Said Stadium — showed a great deal of passiveness while home fans were attacking the visitor stands en masse, raising suspicions they had a hand in orchestrating Egypt's worst-ever football disaster.

The tragic incident brought accumulating enmity between the police and Ultras groups to a peak, leaving the latter more vocal than ever.

During the vociferous protest march that moved from Ahly Club to Downtown Cairo, Ultras protesters were in the thousands. However, they lived up to their groups' pledge to refrain from violent acts and called for retribution through the judicial system, despite repeated threats from members to take the law into their own hands should justice not be served.

"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 shortly after the incident in rare appearance, as Ultras members do not speak to the media by habit. "I wish they (the authorities) avoid incurring our wrath and that of the victims' families too."

Nine police officials among 73 defendants are standing retrial on charges related to the killing of the young fans, with final verdicts yet to be returned and executed.

But while they are waiting for the trial to end, Ultras groups were dealt several blows, the last of which was a court order issued this month to ban them. In response, they have seemingly grown less vocal and less visible, with no official comments or reaction from any of the Ultras groups on the verdict.

A former member of Ultras Ahlawy (Ahly's largest Ultras group), who is still in touch with his former peers and is aware of their views, says the group is "keeping a low profile" these days because there is no need to act otherwise.

"The verdict is useless because Ultras groups by default are illegal all over the world," he said. "That's why they avoid using the word 'Ultras' on their banners. Ultras Ahlawy, for instance, would use 'Third [class stand] on the left' (where they are usually located in the stadium), and that is understood by everyone. Zamalek's Ultras use the 'White Knights'."

"On the other hand, league games are played behind closed doors. Why would they release any statements then?" explained the ex-Ultras fan who chose to remain anonymous. "Matches without spectators leave Ultras groups like political parties without elections: with not much to say."

After the Port Said disaster, domestic games were ordered to be played behind closed doors. Early this year the decision was reversed but was soon again reactivated after another disaster saw 19 Zamalek fans killed in February when police attempted to disperse large crowds who were making their way into a Cairo stadium to attend a league match.

None of the dead belonged to the White Knights, but the Zamalek Ultras group on its Facebook page strongly condemned the incident in strong-worded and foul-mouthed statements. Their reaction never went beyond the verbal.  

"These days, Ultras groups can no longer instigate mobilisation in the street as they used to do before. The community won't accept it and it's too risky with the protest law (enacted in late 2013), which has put many behind bars."

Ultras amid political upheavals           

Founded in Egypt in 2007, Ultras groups, comprised of hardcore football supporters, were the first to dare to clash with the iron-fisted police of longstanding autocratic president Hosni Mubarak — specifically the Central Security Forces (CSF) at stadiums.

These confrontations grew recurrent with police forces deployed in stadiums known for their harsh use of force, and Ultras groups for illegal fireworks, insulting chants, and impetuosity.

When the 2011 uprising erupted against Mubarak, the Ultras groups, especially in Cairo, were seen at the forefront of street battles with the CSF not because they supported the revolt per se, but because of their hatred for the police. Their participation was instrumental in fueling the mobilisation that led to Mubarak's ouster.

After taking part in politically motivated clashes during and after the uprising, the Ultras groups were widely seen as revolutionary groups, although — apart from their hatred for the police and support for their respective clubs — they have no discernible political agenda or unified ideology, with their members also coming from all walks of life.

In 2012, when the Port Said disaster took place, political forces that took part in the 2011 uprising were still enjoying a degree of public support, despite occasional accusations of espionage or thuggery. Meanwhile, the police were still considered outcast for killing civilians in recurring confrontations during and after the uprising.

The tables have turned since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013; the police regained public support for backing the toppling of the unpopular Islamist leader, while dissident voices have become undesirable thanks to recurrent turmoil and a deteriorated economy following the 2011 uprising.

Many of the forces and figures that took part in the revolution, especially Islamists, were imprisoned on different charges and suffered a crackdown. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails and that faces multiple accusations related to terrorism, was declared a terrorist organisation by the government in December 2013.

Four months later, a court order banned all activities of the April 6 Youth Movement, a similar order to that imposed on the Ultras in a case levelled by Zamalek chairman Mortada Mansour, one of the disciples of the incumbent regime who has always been against the 2011 uprising and at loggerheads with the White Knights.

Tarek El-Awady, the lawyer who represents the Ultras group, stresses the ban order cannot be applied. "There are no consequences to this ruling whatsoever. It is not the same as banning the Brotherhood or declaring them a terrorist organisation," he said.

"The Brotherhood," El-Awady explained, "has an official hierarchy, headquarters, properties and financial assets that have been confiscated accordingly. The Ultras don't have any of that, not even a membership card. So how can you ban them? Inside or outside the stadium?"

"This ruling can only be used politically, just to tarnish the image of such groups. The same goes for the April 6 Movement."

In terms of security, the ruling doesn't add much. On the contrary, it could have unpleasant ramifications, opined Mahmoud Kotri, former police brigadier general and a security expert.

"Banning the Brotherhood was an important step for the sake of preemptive security, because there is evidence they are involved in terror acts. The Ultras, on the other hand, don't pose a threat to that extent at all, despite their previous mistakes."

"You don't want to make them enemies of the community for no reason, by putting them on the same side with the Brotherhood. Most of them are young and impulsive, and that ruling could just encourage some to join militants."

"However dangerous the Ultras groups are, they won't be less of a threat by this court ruling. The trend to ban everyone is just an indication of how feeble the police are. More punishments and bans never yield good results."

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