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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Deep-seated animosity between Egyptian security and soccer fans turns violent



Clashes between militant soccer fans and security forces erupted on Tuesday (Source: Al Ahram)

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian police and soccer fans are set for another face off on Friday at a planned mass anti-government protest on Cairo’s Tahrir Square after scores of militants and security personnel were wounded this week in clashes at a soccer match during which the militants shouted slogans against ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his imprisoned interior minister, Habib el-Adli. Both men are on trial for allegedly being responsible for hundreds of deaths during anti-government protests early this year.

The militant supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC or ultras – militant, violence-prone soccer fan groups modeled on similar organizations in similar groups in Serbia and Italy – said they would demand an end to military trials of critics of Egypt’s military rulers as well as a timetable for the transition to a democratically elected government and the removal of corrupt interior ministry officials. The Ultras Ahly fans are likely to be joined by the Ultas White Knights (UWK), supporters of their Cairo arch rival, Al Zamalek SC.

The militants played a key role in mass protests early this year that prompted the military to force Mr. Mubarak to resign in February with a pledge to lead Egypt to democracy within six months. Many Egyptians have since become skeptical of the military’s handling of the transition process.

The mounting tension between the ultras and the security forces reflects deep-seated animosity between the two that stems from years of weekly battles in soccer stadiums, a training ground that turned the ultras into street battle-hardened force that confronted the police and security forces, widely viewed as Mr. Mubarak’s henchmen, and Mubarak loyalists in clashes during the protests that led to the president’s resignation.

This week’s clashes in which 90 protesters and 45 policemen were injured erupted at the end of an Egypt Cup match between Al Ahly Kima Aswan on Tuesday. The Al-Ahly club website said a man had died after being run over by a car.

The clashes were the first in an Egyptian stadium since Mr. Mubarak’s departure. Security forces were reluctant in recent months to confront the soccer fans out of concern that clashes would undermine their efforts to repair their tarnished image. Scuffles between the police and fans broke out again on Wednesday in front of a court house where 16 detained fans were reportedly being interrogated.

Deputy interior minister Mohsen Mourad said Tuesday’s violence erupted after the militants abused police physically and verbally. “The fans slapped the policemen on the back of their heads and threw plastic bottles at them containing urine. Those are not the normal riots that occur in football matches because of a ruled-out goal for instance. The matters are heavily escalating. The police are subjected to constant assaults everywhere and we are doing our best to exercise self-constraint. I don’t know why those fans are acting fiercely,” Mr. Mourad said on Mehwar TV

The ultras accused security forces of attacking them with batons unprovoked and only because they were shouting slogans against Messrs. Mubarak and El-Adli. “We will make a statement after the investigations to reveal all the details over what happened. All that we would like to say now is that police are retaliating against the Egyptian people. They started with the ultras,” Ultras Ahly said in a statement on their Facebook page.

Youth groups at the core of the protests that ousted Mr. Mubarak, including the 25 January Revolution Youth Coalition and the 6 April Youth Movement issued, statements in support of the ultras.

“The ultras are being punished for the role they played and their heroics in the revolution. We will never allow anyone to undermine our revolution. We are demanding the immediate release of all the youths who were arrested and a thorough investigation over what happened. We are assuring Ultras Ahly that we are following them on the same path of democracy and freedom,” The 6 April movement said in its statement.

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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