Egypt's ultras go from football to politics

Sherif Tarek , Wednesday 13 Apr 2011

Traditionally a notable presence in football stadiums, their experience with security forces and organisational power has made the ultras a political force in Egypt since the start of the revolution in 2011

Ultras Ahlawy
Ultras Ahlawy march through the streets of Cairo in what is known as the 'ultras cortege’ (picture taken from the group’s official site)

With their incessant chants and synchronized displays of colourful support in the stands, Egyptian football’s ultras have assumed an important role for their respective clubs over the past few years. More recently, however, their influence and presence have moved beyond the stadium walls, even if their trademark immaturity remains.

Made up of thousands of dedicated teenagers and young men, united by the love of their team, the controversial ultras have risen to become one of the most powerful and organized bodies in Egypt. While their true purpose is in cheering their team and taunting its opponents, their impact on a political level is not to be ignored.

Ultras Ahlawy and Zamalek’s White Knights played a notable role in the January 25 Revolution. At the forefront of the street battles, their experience in clashing with Central Security forces came in handy when the former regime decided to adopt a violent approach to disperse the protesters in the early days of the uprising.

Their presence was felt during the 18-day revolt, even though both controversial football firms (hardcore supporter groups) barely have any political awareness or beliefs. Officially, Ultras Ahlawy and the White Knights had no certain attitude towards the revolution. No ultras’ leaders told younger members to take part in the bloody demonstrations, but some went to the battle of their own accord.

“It’s not like in Europe, there is no political life in Egypt,” Sherif Hassan, a journalist and a long-standing Ultras Ahlawy member, told Ahram Online. “In Italy, for instance, the ultras groups of Livorno and Napoli are formed by leftists, those of Inter Milan and Lazio by fascists.

“In Egypt it’s the other way around; youths become ultras then their political views start to emerge. Most people are not into politics, thanks to years of oppression under the old administration, and that’s a main reason why folks join fan firms in the first place. They want to belong to some entity and get the chance to express themselves, and football is the only way.

“Ultras groups are based on friendship, even if you are a newcomer you have to be within that circle of friends. Therefore, when some members decided to go to Tahrir Square [the epicentre of the revolution] it was easy for them to persuade their peers to tag along. It was the same case with the White Knights.

“Each capo [ultras leader] would have convinced around 75 per cent of his juniors to participate in the protests. The young members would have followed them without understanding what was going on, but that didn’t happen. Most members are juveniles or in their early twenties. They are too young. Their awareness has to increase in order for them to be politically driven rather than impulsive.”

That impulsive nature was on display for all to see when a large number of the White Knights – among thousands of Zamalek supporters – invaded the Cairo Stadium pitch in the dying minutes of this month’s game with Tunisia’s Club Africain, prompting a free-for-all that saw Algerian referee Mohamed Maknouz and several Tunisian players assaulted.

The unprecedented incident was perceived to be much more serious than just acts of hooliganism, with some attributing the violence to efforts by the counter-revolution to undermine and destabilise the January 25 Revolution.

Mohamed Khattab, an HSBC chief cashier and a hard-core White Knight, believes the pitch invasion was spontaneous. Nonetheless, he does not completely rule out the possibility that some individuals with malicious intentions might have infiltrated Zamalek’s spectators to inflame their feelings and cause pandemonium. He also stressed that the only thing that binds ultras members together is allegiance to their football club.

“I don’t think it was planned but you can never be sure. Some people might have scattered all over the stadium to aggravate tensions,” Khattab, who remained in the stands during the invasion, said. “The White Knights are from all walks of life; their educational backgrounds, cultures, concepts, ages and social levels vary from one member to another, so some football fans might have been affected by such cunning underhand attempts to wreak havoc. Others went down to protect the Tunisian players and the referee.”

Speaking of security at the stadium, Khattab said: “The security [staff] were mere bystanders while people were jumping over the fence to reach the pitch. They didn’t search any one at the gates; getting in was easier for me than getting into my own house! They are to blame more than anything else. With these unreliable security measures, similar incidents are likely to happen again.

“It was an important game and the referee made some bad decisions. Also let’s not forget that the White Knights, like all Egyptians, are frustrated at what’s going on in the country, with criminals and corrupt former officials still unpunished or prosecuted. This could well be another reason for what occurred but we definitely don’t have any sort of a hidden agenda.”

Serbian ultras groups are a clear example of how established football firms can be effectively employed to serve other purposes than just supporting their teams. The delije, or hard men, are Red Star Belgrade’s ardent supporters who have also taken on political roles over the past 20 years. In Bosnia and Croatia, they acted as cruel foot soldiers for militia heads in the ethnic cleansing campaigns. The delije were also among the revolutionary masses that toppled Slobodan Milosevic as president of Serbia and Yugoslavia in 2000.

Likewise, Egyptian ultras groups might be politically involved and oriented in the not-too-distant future, according to Nabil Abdel Fattah, analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“I believe the first and foremost reason why they took part in the January 25 Revolution is their terrible relationship with the police; vendetta was their motive,” says Abdel Fattah. “A lot of them were imprisoned and abused while no one cared to understand the phenomenon of the ultras in Egypt. The police were simply their enemies and they had absolutely no political awareness.

“But after the revolution, I think some of them are increasingly becoming more interested in what’s going. They are expected to be more politically involved and their intentions will always be pure. In general, Egyptians have a high sense of patriotism, so I would say the ultras’ members will never turn into political puppets or hired thugs.”

Last Friday, hundreds of Egyptians confronted armed military soldiers who tried to clear ‎‎Tahrir ‎‎Square from demonstrators calling for the revolution’s as yet unmet demands to be met. At ‎least two protesters were killed in the ensuing violence, which is unlikely to be the end of clashes between Egyptians and their military rulers. Whether ultras take part in the struggle is less certain.

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