A week after the Port Said stadium massacre, the Ultras once again find themselves on the front-line of Egypt’s ongoing revolution against the SCAF.
Initially, the massacre in the football stadium of Port Said — leaving at least 75 dead and 1,000 injured – was presented as an extreme example of Egyptian football hooliganism. Soon, however, it became apparent that the violence was actually an act of revenge orchestrated by the military regime. Their target: the Ultras, fans of the Al-Ahly football club, who from the first day of the revolution stood at the very front-lines of Tahrir Square. Bart Griffioen, editor of socialisme.nu, spoke at length with the Egyptian activist Mohamed Waked about the Ultras and their role in the revolution.
By Bart Griffioen, originally published in Dutch at Socialisme.nu
Mohamed, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists in Cairo, has just returned from the Friday demonstration at the Ministry of Interior. Following the events at Port Said, thousands of Ultras and others took to the streets to rally against the despised Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The running street battles with the army once again saw several protesters killed and many hundreds more wounded. The Ultras message to the SCAF Field Marshal was simple: ‘Tantawi, we want your head!’
‘Immediately after the Wednesday game it was clear that this was not the usual football fan behavior,’ says Mohamed. ‘After the whistle, the home team supporters of Al-Masry immediately invaded the pitch, attacking players and supporters of Al-Ahly. The police instantly retreated, allowing the invaders of the pitch to drive the small minority of Ultras into a corner. Usually the stadium gates would open after the final whistle, whereas now they remained locked. What followed was a massacre which lasted for hours.’
According to Mohamed it is no coincidence that ‘Port Said’ took place exactly one year after the ‘Battle of the Camel’, on 2 Feburary 2011. That day, Mubarak’s thugs and camel riders embarked upon an extreme attempt to break the budding protests in Tahrir. ‘That was a very bloody moment in the revolution, but as everyone knows the tyrant’s plan failed, and over a week later, under pressure from the swelling masses, the dictator was packing his bags.’
The initiative of the Ultras played a crucial role in this bitter battle. ‘It is therefore clear that in Port Said, Mubarak’s heirs wanted to take revenge on the Ultras. In their own statement, the Ultras directly highlighted this: they want to punish us for our participation in the revolution.’
The origin of the Ultras goes back several years. There have long been supporters’ clubs in Egypt, and like in many other countries, football games are often marred by riots. Egyptian supporters have also been inspired by hooligan codes from abroad. The groups largely consist of young twenty-somethings with an older group at the core, coming from the working and lower middle classes. Mostly operating underground, the hooligans traditionally espouse strong nationalist sentiments.
According to Mohamed, this nationalism is deliberately promoted by the state media: ‘They use football as a lightning rod for political problems in Egypt.’ Around an Egypt-Algeria match in 2009, there were severe disturbances, in which Egyptian hooligans attacked Algerian team players and the Algerian embassy, encouraged by repulsive, racist slogans.
‘After that game, followers of Al-Ahly, the largest and most successful players team in Egypt, baptized themselves the Ultras. Since then, the rivalry between supporters’ teams has increased. The Ultras are now the most notorious group of hooligans in the country. Their biggest rivals are the supporters of Zamalek, called the Ultras White Knights. But the supporters of Al-Masry in Port Said are important opponents too.
In general, during matches, there is a vast police presence. Severe confrontations take place with large numbers of injuries, and sometimes people are killed. Supporters have attacked each other with homemade weapons, knives and bottles, and even potatoes with razor blades stuck inside.
At the same time, the preponderance of police forces functions as a catalyst for the confrontations. Mohamed: ‘Here again you see the hypocrisy of the state and the media over “order and security”. The now world famous images of riot police attacking demonstrators in Tahrir Square are hardly an exception for football. Crackdowns are followed by arrests, and when in prison, a supporter can count on gross mistreatment or even torture.
Many football fans share these experiences, further feeding their hatred towards the police. In the Egyptian football stands, this has given rise to the ubiquity of the international rallying cry ‘A.C.A.B.’ (All Cops Are Bastards). Just like in other countries, this bitterness towards the police goes hand-in-hand with a rejection of club management policies, the increasing commercialization and increasing ticket prices for matches.
In the past year, the Egyptian supporters’ slogans have become more overtly political. ‘Football slogans have always been rude and confrontational,’ admits Mohamed, ‘but the development of the slogans of the Ultras shows a clear shift. Racist and misogynist slogans have not disappeared from the stadiums, but since the outbreak of the revolution, the anger is more directly focussed on the Military Council.’
Mohamed puts a number of slogans in a nutshell: ‘A year ago you could hear bold slogans like “Fuck the mother of Hosni Mubarak!” or “We will not forget Tahrir: fuck you!”, and they were screamed in the face of the police. Now, after Port Said, people shouted, “The people want the execution of the Field Marshal!” Last month in the stadiums you could hear mass slogans like “The writing is on the prison walls: down with the military regime!” — and this could also be heard by the Egyptians who viewed the games at home on TV. This illustrates how radicalization develops.’
The Friday of Anger
This developing trend is part of the active participation of the Ultras in the revolutionary process itself. Mohamed says that the first sign of their political involvement could be seen as early as 2010. The Ultras actively participated in the protests after the assassination of Khaled Said, a young man who was beaten to death by police and who later became one of the symbols of the revolution.
By the end of January 2011, it was clear that the Ultras’ participation was by no means just an incident. When the Egyptian revolution broke out — initially on January 25th, then massively escalating on January 28th, the ‘Friday of Anger’ — the authorities throughout Egypt faced resistance on an unprecedented scale.
Mohamed: ‘Police stations were set on fire, and in Cairo we saw the massive clash on the big bridge across the Nile towards Tahrir, where police lines and water cannons were pushed back by the people. The Ultras took the lead in these battles with the police, and relied on their years of experience. For this reason, they responded to the police faster than others — they took to arms without hesitation.’
‘Where the Muslim Brotherhood formed very disciplined, but purely protective long lines of defense, the Ultras drove the riot police back step by step — driven by small, tactical combat units, armed with stones and Molotov cocktails.’ According to Mohamed, it was largely thanks to this determination that the protesters were able to defy the large amounts of tear gas and rubber bullets.
These were very exciting and intense moments for Mohamed, too, and he will not soon forget them. ‘The sheer courage of the Ultras had its influence on the confidence of the other protesters, and as political activists we were also impressed. In defense of the square, an organic cooperation developed between the various groups. Almost spontaneously there was a division of labour, in which responsibilities such as throwing stones, supplying them and the care of wounded were alternated.’
Also typical aspects of football culture — like the shouting of slogans led by drums, the wearing of headbands and the painting of faces — were enthusiastically adopted by other demonstrators. The typical vendor booths at the stadiums could now be found everywhere around Tahrir.
Through their active role in the protests, the Ultras also changed themselves. Mohamed: ‘It is striking how supporters of different teams at Tahrir at one point decided to cooperate and created a new formation, the Ultras Tahrir Square (UTS). For the great enemy was no longer Al-Ahly, Zamalek or Al-Masry, but the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Of course this does not mean that the rivalry between clubs has disappeared. ‘These roots go deep,’ stresses Mohamed — and in Port Said the generals have abused these mutual hostilities vilely. ‘But at the same time, this has also brought about new solidarity between different supporter teams — in recent days, for example, you could see flags of Zamalek and Al-Ahly sewn together.’
The process of radicalization of the Ultras has now been taking place for over a year, and this will not just disappear. ‘After the fall of Mubarak, a whole series of protests has continued, showing that the fire continues to burn and always reappears,’ says Mohamed. ‘Just take the proliferation of strikes in recent months, the storming of the Ministry building in December, or the massive turnout at Tahrir on the first anniversary of the revolution last month.’
‘Remember that the Ultras on most of those moments were with us at the forefront of the battle. They were also those involved in the storming of the Israeli embassy last year, taking the lead with the slogan “Free Palestine”, in which 30 Ultras even tried to break the entrance. That failed; there were 350 injuries and the Ultras were arrested en masse. But it underscores their political awareness, and shows how opposition to the Egyptian aid to Tel Aviv has also won sympathy within their ranks.’
For Mohamed, it is an essential principle of his own organization, the Revolutionary Socialists, that any attack on the revolution is answered with resistance and solidarity — ‘whether they attempt to destroy the Ultras, or pitting Muslims against Christians, or any other tactic of divide and rule.’ It is for this reason that he and his comrades have joined the demonstrations of supporters in recent days, and have launched a support statement entitled ‘In defense of the Ultras’.
According to Mohamed, it is difficult to say what the next steps of the Ultras will be. The call to avenge the martyrs of Port Said is a harbinger of new, violent confrontations on the streets and in the stadiums. ‘But the political transformation among the supporters of the Ultras also shows something else. It is often said that the ideas that people have, and how social relations are furnished, will never change — but revolution is a force that will make all these things stagger fundamentally.’