Egyptian soccer fans are emerging as one of the most significant forces in four days of protests that have already forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to dismiss his government and are gunning for his ouster.
Prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, speaking on Al Jazeera, said the uprising’s most effective organizational strength comes, in the words of Paul Woodward of the War in Context blog, from a quarter that has been ignored by most of the media: soccer fans known as ultras.
“The ultras — the football fan associations — have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment,” Alaa said on Al Jazeera. “Maybe we should get the ultras to rule the country,” he joked.
The ultras are fans of Cairo’s storied Al Ahly (The National) Sports Club. They are a key part of the alliance of youth activists, Islamists, and workers rebelling against the Egyptian government because of its failure to alleviate poverty, eradicate corruption and provide jobs as well as its employment of repression and torture to stymie opposition.
Commenting on the role of the soccer fans, Woodward noted “that the political power now unleashed across Egypt will topple the Mubarak regime not in spite of being leaderless but because it is leaderless — because it has no ideological or social bias but truly represents the will of the people.”
A Facebook statement by Al Ahly’s feared ultras said earlier this week that the group was determined to remain non-political, but that its members were free as individuals to participate in the protests. “The group emphasizes that its members are free in their political choices,” the statement said.
Established in 2007, the ultras -- modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs -- have proven their metal in confrontations with the Egyptian police, who charge that criminals and terrorists populate their ranks.
“There is no competition in politics, so competition moved to the soccer pitch. We do what we have to do against the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong,” an El Ahly ultra said last year after his group overran a police barricade trying to prevent it from bringing flares, fireworks and banners into the stadium. “You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We’re not political, the government knows that and has to deal with us,” he adds.
The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration in the Middle East, a part of the world populated by authoritarian regimes that until the recent wave of protests sweeping the region controlled all public spaces.
Algeria earlier this month cancelled all association soccer matches in a bid to seal off a rallying point for demonstrations protesting rising commodity prices. Egypt cancelled its matches on Thursday. Riots in Jordan late last year that left 250 people injured exposed a deepening rift between East Bankers of Bedouin origin and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
“Soccer is bigger than politics. It's about escapism. The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law and five kids. He is paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes to the stadium and watches Ahly,” said Assad, a leader of Ahly’s ultras.