Ultras football fans inspired by Egypt's ongoing revolution create pop culture

Farah Montasser, Sunday 22 Jan 2012

Football fans, Ultras of Egypt, have not only been on-the-ground key players in Egypt's political scene, but have even created their own pop culture since the revolution

Ultras recent graffiti and tag art in Sayda Zeinab area

Besides all the political, cultural, and social movements that exploded since the Egyptian uprising starting 25 January 2011, football fanatics "Ultras" became extremely dominant and strong key players in the revolution.

Standing at demonstrations’ front lines, they supported other protestors and activists in their ongoing battle against the Egyptian regime, protecting them from the police or army attacks.

The Ultras are a notable presence in Tahrir Square or any other of Egypt’s liberation squares where protests take place. Maybe they are not recognisable by face, but certainly by their sound. It's easy to identify the crowd with their rhythmic chants that describe Egypt's situation.

“Everything we present to the public...comes from within our group… it is teamwork,” Omar Nader, a member of the Ultras Ahlawy (one of the two top Egyptian teams) told Ahram Online.

“We don’t have a songwriter,” he says. “These are the chants you hear at stadiums when we accompany Al-Ahly football club.”

Whenever Ultras participate in a protest they hammer out the same rhythms used in football matches, but with political lyrics. They chant for freedom of expression, to honour the victims of the revolution and against the ruling regime.

According to Mohamed Gamal Bashir, known as @Gemyhood, in his book Ketab El Ultras (The Ultras Book), the Ultras movement uses the loudest musical instruments possible, finding Latin American instruments suitable.

“However, instruments must be portable and easy to carry for the duration of the entire football game, which is 90 minutes,” he says. Also, the sounds or music must represent the culture of the city, the fans themselves and the team they cheer for.

“In Egypt, we use the oriental drums and Duf,” he emphasises.

Because it is teamwork and none of the Ultras members take credit for anything, Nader explains how the music is produced. First, he says, “At our gatherings those who have written any lyrics fit for our football club are discussed; others may amend it for clarity or to add artistry,”

“This procedure is also applied during this revolution… Members must be granted approval for their music, chants and cheers before hitting the streets,” he explains.

Not only have these political chants been sung at protests and sit-ins over the past year, but also during the matches. “We are revolutionaries, like the rest of the Egyptians, and at any moment we find suitable we are happy to spread our message for Egyptians to hear and see,” Nader tells Ahram Online.

Although media channels broadcasting Ahly games mute anti-regime and anti-SCAF (SCAF is the acronym for Egypt's ruling military council) chants, the Ultras continue to blatantly disregard any attacks by the police force.

“Some of our fellow Ahly fans have been kidnapped by the police force at several matches, yet we don’t stop,” Nader states.

The Ultras pop culture has also spread through the streets through graffiti, especially on walls next to the biggest clubs of Cairo, Al-Ahly and Zamalek. They capture the eye with bright colours and political messages. Instead of praising their football teams, like before, those walls have gradually transformed into large canvases to honour those who killed during the revolution and send out anti-regime messages emphasising that the revolution is still alive.

As organised in their chants, the Ultras, too, seem to have a dedicated group of young artists who scatter onto every Cairo street to call against the ruling regime.

“Again; we don’t have professional artists, but some good talents in graffiti art,” Nader explains.

Nader says that in the Ultras meetings they discuss graffiti ideas and grant their creators permission to paint them.

“We don’t have artists and I hardly know anyone in the group with an artistic background,” says Nader. “Everything you see on the walls across Cairo is from purely talented members who have direct messages.”

Bashir (@Gemyhood), calls it an underground movement that spreads its messages and identity through graffiti. In addition to graffiti art, the Ultras are famous for "taggin."

Bashir explains that a "tag is a banner, or sometimes just the group’s name and the area it belongs to." Tags differ from graffiti in that tags use symbols and colours to decorate their words, whereas graffiti is "a vivid picture describing a certain situation."

The graffiti and tag art became popular in the 1970s and developed in Italy and France, according to Bashir, to be followed by Serbia and Croatia. “In the Middle East and Arab World, graffiti was introduced to Morocco ages ago, making it stand out today. On the other hand, graffiti was only introduced to Egypt in 2007,” says Bashir.

He says that graffiti is designated to the members who are well-known in their neighbourhoods, which had helped the movement to grow faster in the past. However, during the unrest in today's Egypt, Ultras members are often arrested and questioned by authorities in their own neighbourhoods.

A well-known ultras graffiti artist known as Kalbaz (Chubby) was unreachable for this article, in fact, because he was arrested.

“Kalbaz was arrested when painting some walls at El Salam district and it has been our mission since then to free him,” Nader told Ahram Online.

Nader recounts that while Kalbaz and another Ultras member, Mohamed Saad, were spraying their political graffiti in El Salam district that they were arrested by police, who claimed that some El Salam residents had reported them.  

“We are a very organised movement and have nothing to do with politics,” Omar Nader, a member of the Ultras Ahlawy told Ahram Online.

In Nader's mind, neither he nor the Ultras are politicians, but simply a group determined to play an active role in the revolution to regain Egyptians' rights.

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