Al Ahly ultras riots during match against Kima Aswan (Source: Al Ahram)
By James M. Dorsey
A Cairo juvenile court has postponed its verdict in the case of seven members of Ultras Ahlawy, the militant, violence-prone, highly politicised fan group of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC until 27 November.
The seven ultras stand accused of rioting, damaging private and public property, attacking policemen and burning vehicles during their club’s Egyptian Club playoff last month against Kima Aswan. Clashes between the ultras and security forces left 135 people wounded, including 45 policemen.
Lawyers for the defendants argued that their clients had been unlawfully arrested after police used force to clear the stands.
Another seven Al Ahly ultras face similar charges in a separate case in which the court is expected to announce its verdict on November 30. The seven denied the charges but admitted to shouting insults and slogans against ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib El-Adly.
Messrs Mubarak and Al Adly are on trial on charges of ordering the killing of unarmed protesters during mass anti-government protests that toppled the Mubarak regime. The ultras from various Egyptian soccer clubs played a key role in clashes with security forces and Mubarak loyalists during the protests.
The postponement came as the ultras were sending mixed signals on whether they will continue to employ violence in support of their clubs and in a bid to hold Egypt's ruling military to their promise to fully withdraw from politics after elections.
Al Ahly ultras confronted security forces on Friday as they sought to bring fireworks, flares, smoke guns and banners into a stadium in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria in support of their team's match against premier league squad Harras el Hodoud, the club owned by the Egyptian Border Guards.
Al Ahly was forced to play the match away from home in Alexandria as part of a penalty imposed on the club by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) for fan violence last month at an Egypt Cup match.
The fans unfurled a banner during Friday’s match challenging EFA by saying: "You will not teach us how to support our team."
In a statement on their Facebook page, which has some 230,000 followers, the ultras - modelled on similar militant fan groups in Italy and Serbia -, who played a key role in mass anti-government protests early this year that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, said their message was "primarily directed at the Egyptian Football Association."
Militant soccer fans have been demanding the resignation of the EFA's board, which consists largely of Mubarak appointees, whom they accuse of corruption and allowing match fixing. They have also been at the forefront of the military’s handling of the post-Mubarak transition to democracy, accusing the military of increasingly suppressing freedom of expression and right to protest and failing to respond robustly to Israeli provocations.
The ultras said further on their Facebook page that their message was also directed at "anyone who thinks he can turn stadiums into prison under his control. We own the stadiums, we own the stands."
The EFA has said it would crackdown on disorder at matches caused primarily by the ultras’ creation of a feverish atmosphere with their continuous chanting and extensive use of fireworks and flares that more often than not leads to confrontations with security forces. EFA is expected to penalize Al Ahly for Friday’s incidents.
Al Ahly soccer director Sayed Abdel-Hafiz refrained from commenting on Friday’s events but praised the ultras for their “huge support,” according to Al Ahram Online.
The ultras' reassertion of their adherence to militant tactics follows a month of spiralling violence in Egypt that appeared to have persuaded the ultras to temporarily change course and back away from clashes with security forces.
Continued soccer violence as well as parliamentary elections scheduled for November persuaded the EFA to earlier this week back out of hosting the eight-nation African men's Olympic qualifying tournament. The competition was to be played in Cairo from November 25 to December 10 with the top three teams qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics.
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.