Egypt’s Ultras: Politically involved but not politically driven, yet

Sherif Tarek , Monday 16 Jan 2012

A year after the revolution, Ahram Online looks at the Ultras — football fan groups in Egypt — and whether soon they might be motivated by more than mere hatred of the police

Egypt’s Ultras (Photo: Sherif Tarek)

Since playing a role during the January 25 Revolution, Egyptian football’s Ultras (a name given to the hardcore fan base) have become strongly involved in the country’s heated domestic affairs.

Capitalising on their physical and organisational capabilities, the flamboyant youth Ultras have featured prominently in recurring confrontations with security forces, and also took part in protests — though not all — throughout the year 2011.

But much as their out-of-stadium appearances gave momentum to events that politically impacted Egypt over the past few months, the motives of the Ultras as a group can barely be deemed political.

“It’s safe to say that 80 per cent of the Egyptian population doesn’t know anything about politics, and the same goes for Ultras,” Mohamed Gamal Beshir, an author and expert on the Ultras movement who is best known by his Twitter name @Gemyhood, told Ahram Online.

“The Ultras only stand out because they are a sizeable group, but they are not really unified when it comes to politics. Some members might be from all across the political spectrum, others are completely apathetic. Some participate in demos, others don’t.

“They are like any other community; you can find all kinds of people in the Ultras groups. Outside the stadium, therefore, they move and act as individuals. They only appear as one body when they all agree on one thing, which happens very seldom.”

During the 18-day revolt last year, Ultras members decided to hit the streets as individuals. However, they became noticed as a group.

Particularly, Ultras Ahlawy and Zamalek’s White Knights soldiered on in Tahrir Square in the face of brutal attacks from the notorious Central Security Forces (CSF), and hired thugs who assaulted and killed protesters in the infamous Battle of the Camel.

Much to their pride, members of the fanatic fan bases in most of the battles vanquished the deposed regime’s police personnel and thugs, who eventually failed to nip the uprising in the bud, leading to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and his government.

At the time, bringing about political upheaval was not really what enthused the Ultras. Rather, the impulse was to lock horns with their archenemies, the police, to avenge abuses they had previously suffered under Mubarak’s security apparatus.

The same urge has ever since remained their primary motive to join political rallies.

Hostility with police: The Ultras’ rallying point

On the “Friday of Correcting the Path” on 9 September, eight months after the revolution, Ultras Ahlawy and the White Knights made their most sturdy and sensational return to Tahrir, the focal point of the January uprising.

On that day, other protesters called for the fulfillment of many demands, such as retribution against those who killed peaceful demonstrators during the revolution and the end of military trials for civilians. The Ultras groups, on the other hand, were there for a dispute with the Interior Ministry.

Their main demand was the release of their cohorts who were arrested three days earlier following a brawl that had erupted with the CSF after the final whistle of an Ahly cup match. 

That post-match scuffle reportedly took place when the CSF assaulted Ahly’s Ultras in the stands and arrested some of them, apparently because they cursed Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib EL-Adly in the dying minutes of the game.

While protesting the incident, the Ultras vociferously chanted again against the infamous pair throughout Tahrir and all the way to the nearby Ministry of Interior headquarters. An affray would have definitely resulted was not for the disappearance of the police from the area that day.

Ahmed Gafaar, nephew of Zamalek football legend Farouk Gafaar and one of the White Knights’ founders, believes hostility towards the police is what unites most Ultras members in demonstrations these days, as during the revolution.

“If you went to a stadium and saw how some policeman riding a horse could lash Ultras members with a whip for no apparent reason, you would understand the nature of the relationship between the police and Ultras groups,” Gafaar told Ahram Online.

“This terrible relationship between both sides is the result of the constant brutality Ultras have long been subject to. They do hate the police and would engage with them on every possible occasion, and that’s by far justifiable considering the treatment they have been receiving.

“They would step in whenever they see police forces brutalising people anywhere, whether from their own or not. They would take advantage of their experience in fighting with the CSF to stand up against them, and protect the other side.”

A couple of months ago, another evident post-revolution instance of Ultras presence in Tahrir was brought on by the police's use of excessive force against defenceless demonstrators.

On 19 of November, CSF tried to forcibly disperse a sit-in held by a small number of people, some protesting the interim military rule and others calling themselves the “injured of the revolution”. The incident prompted days of clashes between revolutionaries and security forces.

The turmoil was focused on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which branches from the iconic Tahrir Square, and saw tens killed and hundreds injured, with the Ultras on the frontlines against the police.

“The whole thing began when the police beat up those who had been injured in the revolution, and that enraged the Ultras and urged them to join the brawl. They were on the forefront of the confrontation, because they cannot stand such excesses from the police,” Gafaar explained.

No sooner had they showed up in Tahrir amidst November’s chaos than other protesters gave them the reception of heroes. Likewise, the Ultras were earlier warmly welcomed when they joined altercations with the police late in June, after the latter had reportedly assaulted the families of the revolution's martyrs.

“All demonstrators always welcome the Ultras members in Tahrir Square,” Ahmed Ezzat, general coordinator of the Popular Committees for Protecting the Revolution, told Ahram Online. “They are highly organised and are not looking for any media attention,” he added.

“They have the tendency to struggle in hard times; they are perceived to be comrades in the project of the revolution and have robustly supported the revolutionaries all along,” said Ezzat, who participated in many of last year’s protests.  

Opposite to what was initially thought upon the overthrow of ex-president Mubarak, the revolution did not mark an end to police cruelty. In fact, it heralded the beginning of a series of worse clashes between demonstrators and security forces.

With more clashes likely to break out the coming few months against the police or the army, which has turned in the eye of many from the “protector of the revolution” to another repressive tool, the Ultras are expected to appear again en masse outside the football stadium.

Will they at some point be driven by a political vision instead of enmity against the police?

Too young for politics

When asked, Beshir, whose book Kitab Al-Ultras (The Ultras Book) was recently published, replied: “Ultras can be categorised like any faction. For example, there is an evident similarity between them and the Salafists; society has reservations about both; each has its own traditions and activities; and sometimes they dress in a sort of uniform.

“However, the Ultras cannot fully go political, as the Salafists moved from preaching to politics, for many reasons. First of all, the average age of an Ultras member is between 13 to 23, and it will never change because the seniors always tend to leave the group in their twenties, getting busy with work and life.

“Most of them are teenagers who would never proclaim a certain cause in the political arena. Also, as football supporters, they wouldn’t attain the respect of many people and will always be taken lightly.”

For his part, Gafaar holds out hope that a host of Ultras members can be more politicised, although not through their fan clubs. Indeed, Gafaar has been pushing forward an initiative to gather all Ultras members who are politically active to form a separate movement.

“We have been working to form that movement for a while; it should be similar to the April 6 [Youth] Movement,” he explained.

Gafaar revealed that Ahmed Harara, the renowned dentist who became completely blind after losing a second eye while protesting against Egypt's ruling military council in late November (he lost the first protesting against Mubarak in January) is strongly supporting this up-and-coming movement.

“Ahmed Harara is like the godfather of this movement,” Gafaar explained. “He should talk to the media about it soon.”

Meanwhile, the revolution’s first anniversary on 25 January is looming, with scenarios on what could happen seeming limitless.

Whereas the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) plans a celebration in which military airplanes scatter coupons that give citizens a variety of free goods, a myriad of revolutionary groups intend to call for the immediate handover of power to a civilian administration.

Many are convinced that no clashes will take place on the anniversary should no security forces appear on the streets, especially in Tahrir and downtown. If they do appear, many believe confrontations are inevitable.

On what Ultras will do on 25 January, Beshir states: “I think some of them will go the square [Tahrir] on their own accord, like they did in the same date last year... No one can be sure how that day will turn out.”

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