By James M. Dorsey
Thousands of soccer fans demand an end to military rule (Source: 3arabawy)
Thousands of militant, violence-prone, highly politicized soccer fans formed the core of mass protests in Cairo that late Friday stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo and earlier besieged the headquarters of the Egyptian security forces.
The militants or ultras – radical soccer fan groups modelled on similar organizations in Serbia and Italy that played a key role in the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – were the backbone of the protest under the slogan “Correct the Path” aimed at putting an end to the role of the military in the country’s transition toward democracy.
The protest and the escalation with the attack on the Israeli embassy reflects mounting concern among segments of the Egyptian population with perceived efforts by the military to curb hard-fought freedoms and ensure that the military’s privileged position is secured by any government that emerges from parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.
The military forced Mr. Mubarak in February to bow to protesters’ demand that he resign after 30 years in office and took over power with the pledge to lead the country to elections within six months. The military has since delayed the election date although few believe that it wants to retain power, been slow in holding accountable police officers and Mubarak loyalists responsible for the deaths of hundreds during the protests that led to the toppling of the president, cracked down on the right to criticize the armed forces and charged thousands of protesters and activists in military courts. Many Egyptians have also taken the military to task for failing to respond forcefully to the killing last month of three Egyptian soldiers by Israeli forces chasing Palestinian militants near the border with Egypt. Egypt alongside Jordan is the only Arab nation to have concluded a peace treaty with Israel and to have established diplomatic relations.
“Ultras groups steal the show,” said Egypt’s Al Ahram newspaper, adding that the militant soccer fans were the most organized group as protesters gathered after Friday prayers on Cairo’s Tahrir Square where many had camped out for 18 days earlier this year until Mr. Mubarak announced his resignation.
The soccer pitch alongside the mosque was virtually the only venue where Egyptian could vent anger and pent-up anger under the Mubarak regime. Street battle-hardened by four years of weekly clashes with security forces and between themselves in soccer stadiums, the ultras played a key role in breaking the barrier of fear during clashes with Mubarak loyalists in the protests that brought the president down. They saw the stadium brawls as preparation for a day in which they would play a key role in Egypt’s throwing off the yoke of autocratic rule.
On Friday, the ultras from arch rival Cairo soccer clubs Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC set aside their deep-seated animosity much like they did in late January and early February during the anti-Mubarak protests. As a result, the militants were at the forefront of the storming of the headquarters of the hated security police immediately after Mr. Mubarak’s downfall as they were late Friday in the violent demonstrations in front of the interior ministry and the storming of the Israeli embassy.
Friday’s protest followed a clash on Tuesday at a soccer match between Al Ahly ultras and security forces in which some 130 people, including 45 policemen, were wounded and some 20 ultras were arrested. Tuesday’s clash erupted after the militants shouted slogans against Mr. Mubarak and his imprisoned interior minister, Habib el-Adli. Both men are on trial for allegedly being responsible for deaths of protesters during anti-government protests early this year. "F-k the mother of Hosni Mubarak," the militants shouted on Tuesday. And as police brought in reinforcements to the stadium, they started chanting: "Go f-k your minister, Habib al Adly.”
The mounting tension between the ultras and the security forces reflects deep-seated animosity between the two that stems from the years of weekly battles in stadiums, a training ground that turned the ultras into a street battle-hardened force and gave them a kind of cult status as one of the few groups able to confront Mr. Mubarak’s repressive machinery. In a soccer crazy country in which for many years nothing except for soccer rivalled religion in the depth of emotion it evoked, the soccer fans constituted living proof that Mr. Mubarak’s hated security forces, who had come to fear the militants, were not untouchables.
Tuesday’s 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. The clashes
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.