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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Clashes with police thwart attempt by militant Egyptian soccer fans to build bridges


Ahly ultras support Al Ahly against Esperance (Source: Al Ahram Online)

By James M. Dorsey

Clashes with security forces erupted Friday night as crowned Cairo club Al Ahly FC was stopped by Esperance Sportive de Tunis from advancing in the African Champions League despite efforts by the Egyptian club’s militant supporters to ensure that the game would proceed without incident.

The efforts by Ultras Ahlawy, the club’s militant, highly politicized, violence-prone supporter group, to keep the peace followed a series of incidents in the past two weeks in which some 1,200 people were injured and three killed in confrontations with security forces and soccer fans participated in the storming of the Israeli embassy in the Egyptian capital.

A 1:1 draw put an end to Al Ahly’s hopes of advancing in the tournament.

Disappointed fans attacked players of both teams after the final whistle and attempted to break into Ahly’s dressing room. The fiancée of on Ahly player, Walid Soliman, was attacked as she waited in a luxury car in the Cairo stadium parking lot, according to Al Ahram Online. Security forces intervened to ensure the safe departure of the players.

The attacks were reportedly perpetrated by a group of fans that broke ranks with some 50,000 ultras assembled in the stadium to cheer their team on. In an attempt to repair strained relations between the ultras and security forces, law enforcement officials agreed that the ultras would take responsibility for keeping their members in check during the match.

In return, the ultras called on their members in the days before the match to refrain from violence and the throwing of bottles and other objects onto the pitch. They also agreed not to bring flares, fireworks and smoke guns into the stadium. Ultras gave the Ahly team a standing ovation at the end of the match even though they had failed to secure their place in the African cup.

The concessionary attitude of the ultras was agreed in a meeting with Al Ahly chairman Hassan Hamdy.

The ultras willingness to avoid violence and confrontation with security forces and to support their team irrespective of the outcome of the match constitutes a milestone. The supporters’ relationship with both the players and security forces is complex and had been deteriorating ever since the eruption of mass anti-government protests early this year that forced autocratic president Hosni Mubarak to resign in February after 30 years in office.

The ultras fought years of battles with the security forces, widely viewed as Mr. Mubarak’s henchmen, and confronted them in the protests that led to the president’s ousting. During clashes last week in which more than 130 people, including 45 policemen, were hurt, the ultras shouted at the security forces, "Go f-k your minister, Habib al Adly,” a reference to Mr. Mubarak’s interior minister who alongside the president is on trial for the deaths of hundreds killed in the anti-Mubarak protests.

The fans’ relationship with the players is no less complex. The ultras accuse the players of having failed to support them during the popular revolt. The players’ failure to join the anti-Mubarak protests reinforced the fans’ belief that players’ are hired guns with no real loyalty to the club or its supporters.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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