Ultras descend on Tahrir Square during November protests
By James M. Dorsey
The Egyptian Football Association (EFA) has delayed the 16th round of Premier League soccer matches in a bid to prevent the pitch from becoming an anti-military rallying point during this week’s celebrations of the eruption of protests a year ago that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
The delay, a year after the EFA suspended professional soccer for three months in the walk-up to and aftermath of the ousting of Mr. Mubarak, is part of a concerted effort to reduce the risk of clashes between militant, violence prone soccer fans and security forces.
The military announced late Saturday that it had granted amnesty to 1,950 people, including activists and soccer fans detained during clashes in past months with security forces in a nother move designed to avert violence during the anniversary celebrations.
Matches will resume on January 27, two days after the celebrations on January 25, the first of 18 days of mass anti-government protests last year that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.
Egypt’s military rulers who succeeded Mr. Mubarak with a pledge to lead the country to free and fair elections see the celebrations as a means of cementing their position in advance of horse trading with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was confirmed this weekend as the winner of the country’s first Mubarak election.
They hope that the celebrations will further isolate the youth and soccer fan groups or ultras – militant, highly politicized, violence-prone supporters of Cairo’s two main soccer teams that are modelled on similar groups in Italy and Serbia -- that formed the core of the anti-Mubarak protests and have since repeatedly clashed with security forces over their demand that the military return to the barracks.
Revered by activist youth, the soccer fans and youth groups that spearheaded Mubarak’s overthrow have lost significant support of a public that has grown tired of the political turmoil wracking Egypt and a year later has yet to see a tangible improvement of their social and economic situation. The military continues to be popular despite its brutal response to post-Mubarak protests and many Egyptians are for now willing to give it and the Brotherhood the benefit of the doubt.
The youth and soccer fan groups fear that the military and the Brotherhood, which controls about half the seats in parliament, will cut a deal under which in return for the military’s acceptance of the Islamists’ electoral victory they would support the military’s candidate for president in presidential elections scheduled for June.
The postponement of the soccer matches reflects the government and the EFA’s concern that the soccer fan and youth groups will use the January 25 celebrations to press their demand for the immediate return of the military to its barracks – a demand that is strengthened by the fact that the country now has an elected parliament.
The military has been reluctant to surrender power as long as its privileged political and economic position, involving exemption from civilian oversight and the maintenance of a commercial conglomerate that accounts for anywhere between 10 and 25% of Egypt’s GDP, is not guaranteed.
The Brotherhood’s actions over the last year, including its support for this week’s military-led celebrations and a declared willingness to grant the military immunity, suggests that it is willing to accommodate the military despite a statement in recent days by its leader, Mohammed Badie, that the incoming parliament will scrutinize the military's budget and hold the army accountable for mistakes made during the last year’s transition.
Scores have been killed, thousands wounded and thousands more dragged in front of military courts in the last year as a result of clashes between soccer fans and other youth groups and security forces.
Fears of renewed clashes this week are reinforced by a growing sense that the militant soccer fans’ raison d’etre increasingly has become their deep-seated hatred of the police and the Central Security Force (CSF) rather than a political vision for the future of Egypt.
“If you went to a stadium and saw how some policeman riding a horse could lash ultras members with a whip for no apparent reason, you would understand the nature of the relationship between the police and ultras groups. This terrible relationship between both sides is the result of the constant brutality ultras have long been subject to. They do hate the police and would engage with them on every possible occasion, and that’s by far justifiable considering the treatment they have been receiving,” Al Ahram Online quoted Ahmed Gafaar, a nephew of Zamalek football legend Farouk Gafaar and one of founders of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the fan group of crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC.
The ultras, steeled by years of almost weekly clashes with security forces in stadiums during the Mubarak era, played a key role in breaking the barrier of fear as tens of thousands of protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square in late January of last year where they stayed for 18 days until Mubarak resigned. They formed the protesters’ front line when security forces and Mubarak loyalists attacked the protesters.
The ultras have since Mr. Mubarak’s departure joined other youth groups in often violent anti-military clashes with security forces and were welcomed as the revolt’s shock troops by protesters being attacked by the CSF.
The ultras “would step in whenever they see police forces brutalising people anywhere, whether from their own or not. They would take advantage of their experience in fighting with the CSF to stand up against them, and protect the other side,” Mr. Gafaar said.
Ahmed Ezzat, the general coordinator of the Popular Committees for Protecting the Revolution, added speaking to Al Ahram Online: “All demonstrators always welcome the Ultras members in Tahrir Square. They are highly organised and are not looking for any media attention. They have the tendency to struggle in hard times; they are perceived to be comrades in the project of the revolution and have robustly supported the revolutionaries all along.”
The military and the EFA fears that attitude could spark riots on January 25. Says Mohamed Gamal Beshir, another UWK founder and author of the recently published book, Kitab Al Alutras (Book of the Ultras): “No one knows how January 25 will turn out.”
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.