James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This article first appeared in his blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
Egypt’s militant soccer fans, one of the country’s largest civic groups, have emerged from a week of street agitation politically strengthened as they seek to chart a course in the post-Mubarak era.
The highly politicized, well-organized and street battle-hardened fans led by supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC have garnered public support from several political parties, including the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of newly elected President Mohammed Morsi for their agenda that calls for justice for 74 fans killed in a politically loaded brawl in February, a reform of the police and security forces, taking responsibility for security in stadiums away from the interior ministry, an end to corruption in soccer and the removal of Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and club officials with ties to the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Expressions of support for the ultras led by Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahly support group, came at the end of a week in which the fans stormed the club’s training ground to protest against the willingness of players and managers to resume professional soccer after it was suspended for seven months in the wake of the Port Said brawl without justice for the victims having been achieved. The fans stormed the EFA headquarters a day later and threatened to force their way into a stadium in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria where Al Ahly was playing on Sunday Egypt’s first domestic match since February.
The ultras withdrew their threat hours before the match saying they wished to avoid bloodshed. In a statement on their Facebook page that has more than 570,000 followers, the group asserted that “the Interior Ministry has returned to its ‘dirty’ practices by playing Egyptians off against each other.” The ultras said they had recording of a phone call in which an interior ministry official allegedly sought to instigate residents in areas near the Alexandria stadium to resist the ultras. The ultras charged further that the ministry had planned to bring in Bedouins to confront the ultras. Security forces had put a cordon around the stadium several kilometers away from the pitch to prevent the ultras from reaching the Ahly Super Cup match against ENPPI that was played without spectators behind closed doors.
The government this weekend further bought time to avoid renewed clashes with the ultras who are both hated and respected by security forces whom they regularly confronted in stadiums during Mr. Mubarak’s four last years in office rule by postponing the resumption of the Premier League by yet another month. The ultras played a key role during the mass protests last year that forced the president from office, and fought vicious street battles in which tens of people were killed and thousands injured during the 17 months of transition military The league, which like all other soccer was suspended, was scheduled to restart on September 17 despite fan opposition.
The ultras’ political battle received a boost this weekend when Mr. Morsi’s FJP, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared its “full support” for the ultras and their “just cause. The FJP expressed its support noting that “none of those who killed their colleagues have been punished.”
In separate remarks on Twitter, Khairat El-Shater, widely viewed as the power behind Mr. Morsi’s throne, also came out in favor of the ultras. “Allowing the Super Cup match in the name of preserving the stature of the state is a manipulation of a righteous cause. Preserving the stature of the state will be achieved when the real perpetrators of the Port Said massacre are brought to justice,” said Mr. El-Shater, who withdrew his candidacy for president in favor of Mr. Morsi after a court earlier this year barred him from running. The Brotherhood leader further demanded that the editor of the FJP’s newspaper apologize for recently describing the ultras as troublemakers.
Tahrir Doctors, an informal grouping of physicians devoted to treating injured protesters said in a statement that “we stress the need to take into consideration the feelings of the Ultras youth. We are witnesses that the Ultras’ role in the revolution was crucial, and they sought no interests or individual gains. We insist that the Ultras did not originally adopt violence, and the proof of this is that they patiently demanded the state to take retribution against the Port Said killers,” the group said. Several youths groups as well as the Egyptian Current party issued similar statements
Earlier, the ultras’ cause was strengthened when starred striker Mohamed Abou-Treika, breaking with the tradition of soccer players standing on the sidelines of popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, if not supporting autocratic leaders, announced this weekend that he would not be joining his fellow Al Ahly players in Sunday’s match against ENPPI.
A slow moving trial against 74 people, including nine security officials, on charges of having been responsible for the death of the 74 Ahly fans in February has fuelled ultras opposition to a resumption of professional soccer. The proceedings were postponed last week until September 17 to allow the court time to review a request by the defense to replace the judge. The brawl, which widely was believed to have been provoked by security forces in a bid to punish the ultras for their role in the ousting of Mr. Mubarak and violent opposition to the military, sparked the banning of soccer for most of this year.
Ultras anger was further fed by the insistence of the interior ministry that once soccer is resumed all matches be played behind closed doors in military stadiums.
Militant soccer fans have been warning for months that they would return to their violent tactics if justice was not meted out in the Port Said case and fans were allowed to attend matches.
The political backing for the ultras is in sharp contrast to their waning popularity towards the end of last year after they fought week-long vicious street battles against the security forces on Cairo Mohammed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square. Although respected for their persistent resistance to the Mubarak regime and the military, many Egyptians had grown protest weary and yearned for a return to normalcy that would put the country back on a path toward economic growth. The perception of the ultras changed from that of a brave force of resistance to one of an obstacle to political and economic progress.
The Port Said incident however earned the ultras an outpouring of empathy that has since been reinforced by the government’s reluctance to hold senior officials accountable for the deaths and its failure to reform the 800,000 man strong police and security forces, Egypt’s most despised institution that is seen as the implementers of Mubarak’s repressive regime.
The ultras’ public support and newly gained political backing has revived debate about their political future. Empowered by their success on the street and an awareness of the power of numbers has renewed discussion about possibly forming a political party. That may prove easier said than done. The ultras agree on their most immediate demands but hail from all walks of life and are unlikely to find ideological common ground. Nonetheless, the debate reflects the wider discussion in revolutionary circles about how to manage the transition from street to parliamentary politics in a post-autocratic society.