Egypt's Ultras: The movements and the state

Ziad A Akl
Thursday 10 Mar 2016

Over the course of the past five years, Ultras movements have been a constant source of disturbance for the Egyptian state

Despite the change in political leadership in Egypt from 2011 until now, none of the different administrations that assumed office were able to arrive at a successful strategy to handle Ultras movements. Courses of action adopted by the different political administrations included attempted dialogues, cooptation, legislation, and outright violence. However, until today the state remains unable to repress the movements or accommodate them.

Although various constraints are put on collective action and social mobilisation via a multitude of tools, Ultras movements remain capable of assembly, expression and influence. While more politically oriented social movements were not capable (for different reasons) of mobilising to commemorate the revolution’s anniversary last January, Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knights were successful in honouring the memory of those who were tragically killed in the Port Said and the Air Defense Stadium massacres.

Perhaps it is fair to say that mobilising on the revolution’s anniversary was not a tactical option that social movements adopted in the first place and eventually failed to realise. However, the unique mobilising capacities of Ultras movements remain impressive and admirable.

The resilience of the two major Ultras movements and their tangible presence despite the set of challenges they faced are proof that Ultras movements in Egypt are not a momentary phenomenon or a part of an anti-state conspiracy as some like to label them, rather they are deeply rooted and genuinely representative movements with tangible social significance and extensive networking capabilities.

On 1 February, after a mass commemoration by Ultras Ahlawy for the Port Said Stadium massacre victims, President El-Sisi stated his willingness to hold a dialogue with Ultras movements and invited them to participate in an investigative committee to uncover the facts about what happened in Port Said Stadium.

The movement responded on the following day through their Facebook page saying that they cannot be both the judge and the jury; they cannot be the victims and yet play the role of the prosecutors.

Ultras Ahlawy insisted that what they are after is justice, and that the case files are full of testimonies and investigations that point to the ones responsible for the massacre.

A week later, on 8 February, Ultras White Knights commemorated the victims who were killed in the Air Defense Stadium massacre in 2015, and the court viewing the case ordered further investigations.

As expected, the president’s comments stirred up a lot of controversy and debate. Those who supported the president’s initiative saw it as a necessary step towards resolving a sensitive issue that needs to be addressed through dialogue rather than repression and restriction.

On the other hand, those who were against the president’s initiative were mainly the faces that regularly attack the Ultras, attempt to defame them, label them as terrorists or vandals and insist that they are nothing other than an organisation serving a foreign political agenda.

Between those two contrasting views lie the real dilemma of Ultras movements and the state, a dilemma of misunderstanding the nature, the essence, and the raison d’etre of Ultras movements.

The president’s initiative was a positive gesture indeed, but one must ask how practical that initiative was in the first place.

The problem is not about the participation of the Ultras in the investigations, it is about the efficiency of the investigative authorities responsible for the Port Said and the Air Defense Stadium cases. Another problem is with the extent of institutionalisation in Ultras movements.

Although there are leading figures inside each movement, the structure of leadership is not a vertical or a hierarchal one. In other words, Ultras movements do not have a political bureau like the Revolutionary Socialists or a movement general coordinator like April 6.

Collective choices are not made through a detailed structure of authority, but through a process of networking and an umbrella of basic principles.

Hence, while the president’s invitation for the Ultras to select 10 members to participate in a dialogue with the president reflects a positive sentiment, it also exhibits a lack of sufficient knowledge about the movements.

A third important point to notice is how the president’s gesture contradicts the court ruling that was issued last year banning Ultras movements.

I personally believe that filing an appeal will undoubtedly reverse that verdict, but until that happens, one cannot ignore the confusion the state is in regarding the Ultras.

While the political leadership invites them for dialogue, the judicial body of the state bans their existence as an entity, the police sometimes choose to arrest them and other times choose not to, and parliament members are divided over the following course of action.

Although Ultras movements have been actively present in the Egyptian public sphere since 2007, they remain often misunderstood, mistakenly politicised and inaccurately labeled. The appropriate question now appears to be how can we best deal with those movements?

Despite the fact that some people try to draw an overly problematic and complex picture of dealing with Ultras movements, things are much simpler than we think.

First, the state needs to understand that Ultras movements are not political movements. Therefore, the political orientations of members should not be generalized to characterize the movements as collective entities.

Second, repression and restriction will amount to nothing other than further frustration and diversion from core issues.

Third, bringing the ones responsible for the Port Said and the Air Defense Stadiums massacres to justice is not an Ultras-related issue, it is a human one that constitutes a basic right for all citizens.

Fourth, the ongoing ban of football audience from attending live matches will only increase the potential radicalisation of Ultras groups due to the absence of a public space of expression.

Finally, Egypt is in need of a law that guarantees the safety of football audiences and offers a just mechanism of punishment for those who endanger the safety of others and jeopardize public property.

The president’s invitation was a positive one. While a dialogue between the state and the Ultras could be useful, the more important dialogue should take place between the different state branches that are directly related to the issue.   

The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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