Ultras Ahlawy support during Friday’s match (Source: Al Ahram Online)
By James M. Dorsey
Militant, violence-prone, highly politicised Egyptian soccer fans are sending mixed signals on whether 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.
Supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC on Friday confronted security forces 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, Ultras Ahlawy, 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 continous 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.
EFA president Sami Zaher earlier this week thanked the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of Al Ahly’s arch rival, crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, for their restraint when their team was defeated 2:1 by Premier League club ENPPI. The UWK has in the past responded to defeat by clashing with security forces and rival hard core soccer fans.
“The association was worried the crowds would riot after the defeat but they appeared responsible and civilised,” Mr. Zaher said in a statement on the EFA's website.
Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf earlier this month commended Ultras Ahlawy for their rare cooperation with security forces during an African Champions League match against Esperance Sportive de Tunis.
The joint effort appeared to constitute a watershed in relations between the ultras and security forces, who fought years of weekly battles in stadiums and clashed on Cairo’s Tahrir Square early this year during mass anti-government protests that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.
“I salute the wise fans of Ahli for being fully disciplined in supporting their team before the Tunisian brothers, who also gave a great example in co-operating with security. I hope that sportsmanship remains principal in all sports events in Egypt,” Mr. Sharaf said on his Facebook page.
In an attempt to repair strained relations between the ultras and security forces, law enforcement officials before the match 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.
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.
The brief lull in militant soccer fan violence followed a clash last month in a Cairo soccer stadium in which 130 people, including 45 policemen were injured; last month's storming by ultras of the Israeli embassy in Cairo in which three people were killed and more than a 1,000 wounded; and this month's attack on Coptic Christians that left 25 people dead. The ultras alongside many other Egyptians hold the military responsible for the clashes during the Copt manifestation.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.