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Monday, November 21, 2011

Ultras bolster protesters in battles on Cairo’s Tahrir Square



Ultras descend on Tahrir Square (Picture from Twitter)

By James M. Dorsey

Militant soccer fans bolstered this weekend the ranks of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding an end to military rule in a re-enactment of the protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Like early this year, the ultras – militant, highly politicised, violence-prone fan groups modelled on similar organizations in Serbia and Italy – took the lead in confronting military police seeking to clear Tahrir Square. Within an hour of their arrival on late Saturday afternoon, police retreated from the square as battles continued for several hours on the side streets.

“The Ultras are here. I know that because they're the only ones facing the CSF (Egypt’s paramilitary Central Security Force) with force while singing their (anti-security police) hymns,” tweeted a protester from Tahrir. “The ultras are kicking the police’s ass,” tweeted another protester.

The ultra’s sayaadin or hunters similar to the battles in February on Sunday hurled tear gas canisters fired by the police back into the ranks of the law enforcers. The tactic that worked against Mr. Mubarak’s police and security forces early this year failed however to stop the military police from forcing demonstrators out of the square in a mass stampede.

Nonetheless, once they had regrouped, the ultras led thousands of protesters back into Tahrir. The ultras quickly erected barricades in preparation of expected further clashes that this weekend caused at least one death and the injuring of hundreds of others.

Protesters had called for the street battle-hardened ultras to join them as the battle for Tahrir raged through the afternoon on Saturday, with skirmishes spreading through Cairo's warren of tight streets and smaller squares.

The ultras - supporters of arch rival, crowned Cairo clubs Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC – played a key role in the protests that toppled Mr. Mubarak. They have since been vocal in their demand that the military which succeeded the ousted president stick to its pledge to lead Egypt to elections within six months. That timetable has already slipped with the first stage of elections scheduled for November 28, nine months after the downfall of Mr. Mubarak.

Ultras have clashed repeatedly with security forces in recent months and in September led protesters in an attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo that forced Israel to evacuate its diplomatic personnel. Israel’s ambassador returned to the Egyptian capital this weekend.

Fuelled by a belief that they own the stadium as the only unconditional supporters of their team, the ultras garnered their street fighting experience in years of weekly battles with the police and rival fans. Much like hooligans in Britain whose attitudes were shaped by the decaying condition of stadiums, Egyptian ultras were driven by the Mubarak regime’s attempt to control their space by turning it into a virtual fortress ringed by black steel.

The struggle for control produced a complete breakdown, social decay in a microcosm. If the space was expendable, so was life. As a result, militant fans would confront the police each weekend with total abandonment. It was that abandonment that won them the respect of many Egyptians and that they brought early this year and again on Sunday to Tahrir Square. It was also coupled with their street battle experience what enabled them to help protesters early this year break down barriers of fear that had kept them from confronting the regime in the past and cemented resolve this weekend on Tahrir Square.

The joining of forces of arch rival ultras from Ahly and Zamalek, who for much of the past decade fought one another viciously early this year in the struggle to topple Mr. Mubarak and again this weekend serves as an indication of how deep-seated the demand is for the military to relinquish control.

Disillusion with the military that was celebrated at the time of Mr. Mubarak’s demise because of its refusal to back the president and open fire on the demonstrators has been undermined by the fact that the military since taking over the reins has stumbled from crisis to crisis and extended the period for a handover of power until 2013 when Egyptians will elect their president on the basis of a new constitution to be drafted by an elected constituent assembly. Anger at the military was fuelled by the military’s tabling early this month of supra-constitutional principles that it wanted to be binding on the commission that will draft the new constitution and that would have allowed the armed forces to impose their version of democracy based on continued military.

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

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