· Clash echoes previous incident in Port Said in 2012
Mourners and relatives of a man killed during the clashes in Cairo at Zamalek’s match with ENPPI. Photograph: Hassan Salby/Almasry Alyoum/EPA
Sitting outside Cairo’s main mortuary on Sunday night, as the bodies of dead football fans were carried in and out for their autopsies, Saad Abdelhamid thinks he knows why they have died. “The massacre that took place today was revenge on those who took part in the revolution,” says the 27-year-old salesman.
“Witness this,” shouts another mourner, raising his bloodied hands. “Witness what our government is doing to our kids.”
To outsiders, the death of at least 22 fans of Zamalek SC in a stampede outside a stadium on Sunday evening might appear to be simply a footballing tragedy. To the police, what happened was the fault of fans trying to break into the ground.
But the circumstances that prompted the stampede – police fired teargas and shotgun pellets into the midst of thousands of fans confined in a narrow passage lined with barbed wire – has led traumatised survivors like Abdelhamid to claim their friends were targeted on purpose. And for political reasons.
Amateur footage of Sunday’s stampede in Cairo.
To understand how such a perception might be formed, Abdelhamid says you have to rewind to 2011. Fans from Cairo’s two main clubs, Zamalek and their arch rivals, Ahly, had long clashed with police and each other for footballing reasons. But from 2011 onwards, their members – often middle-class students – began to play a more political role, even if to this day the groups themselves publicly maintain that they are apolitical.
As protesters battled Egypt’s notorious police force in January 2011, in demonstrations that led to the overthrow of then dictator, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s hardcore football fans were a key mobilising force.
“They made a difference in the street in Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo,” argues Abdelhamid, who, as a revolutionary himself, fought alongside them. (A Zamalekfan, he has also attended games with the ultras since 2007. But he is not a Ultras White Knights (UWK) member himself, and so is not subject to their longstanding media boycott.)
A member of the Ultras White Knights cries during Zamalek’s match with and ENPPI in Cairo.Photograph: Ahmed Abd el-Gwad/AP
After Mubarak made way for an army junta, ultras from Ahly and Zamalek continued to make their presence felt, chanting against the regime’s new leaders inside the stadium, and taking part in protests outside it.
They were and are by no means a unified block, says James Dorsey, author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. But their numbers mean “they constitute one of the largest social groups in Egypt”. And their ability to mobilise, even inside a stadium, poses an inherent threat to the authoritarian state.
The Egyptian regime, says Dorsey, “do not tolerate any uncontrolled public space – which means that both the mosque and the soccer pitch are potential problems. They are two of the institutions that evoke the deepest-seated passions of a significant section of the Egyptian public, and you can’t permanently shut them down.”
But depending on who you believe, this didn’t stop the regime from trying to do so. In February 2012, days after Ahly’s ultras chanted that Egypt’s military junta were “dogs like the police”, over 70 of them were killed in clashes that followed a game in Port Said.
Ostensibly, this was a case of fan-on-fan violence: Ahly’s supporters were attacked and killed by locals from Port Said. But for the ultras, there were too many smoking guns to rule out the state’s involvement – and parts of what happened seemed to have been planned. Someone switched off the stadium lights as soon as the attack began. Someone else locked the doors that represented the ultras’ only escape route. And as the fighting raged, the police simply stood and watched.
For Abdelhamid, it was obvious who was behind what happened in Port Said. “With that massacre, the regime made it very clear that it was against the ultras,” he says. “It was punishing them for their participation in the revolution against Mubarak regime.”
Almost exactly three years on, Abdelhamid claims that Sunday’s stampede was Zamalek’s Port Said moment. Having been trapped himself in what he calls the “passage of death”, it is hard for him to attribute the manner in which fans were hemmed into such a tiny space, and then sprayed with teargas, to simple negligence.
Amateur footage of Sunday’s stampede in Cairo.
Others can’t be sure. “There’s always a chance that it’s politicised in some way,” says Islam Issa, an Egyptian football analyst, academic, and players’ agent. “But it’s pretty impossible to pinpoint things at this stage. I don’t think there’s an established account yet of the Port Said massacre three years ago, so we can’t even be close to understanding what happened this week.”
Certainly, the ultras, as a collective, pose a slightly smaller threat to the police than they did three years ago. One result of Port Said was that subsequent games were played behind closed doors – Sunday’s match was one of the first to be reopened to the public – and so the group’s ability to gather and mobilise has been diminished.
A return to Mubarak-era authoritarianism has also constricted their activities. And their potency as a united political force was undermined by the fallout from the overthrow of the ex-president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, a move that left Egyptians highly polarised. Zamalek’s White Knights were no exception, and so in an attempt to maintain their unity, in recent months UWK mobilised around internal club issues, and stayed away from national ones.
But the particulars of those internal struggles also hint at why the ultras might once again be in the crosshairs of the state.
A Zamalek supporter wearing a Guy Fawkes mask near a burning police car outside the stadium in Cairo. Photograph: STR/EPA
For much of the past year, the ultras have been at loggerheads with Zamalek’s chairman, an oddball, loudmouth lawyer named Mortada Mansour. A self-proclaimed counter-revolutionary, Mansour has made no secret of his hatred for ultras and protesters in general. For their part, some of the ultras tried to douse him in urine. In return, the pro-regime Mansour tried to get them listed as terrorists.
“They are not fans, they are criminals,” Mansour claimed in an interview with the Guardian late last year. “They are using bombs, live ammunition and shotgun pellets … but I continue because this is part of the nation’s battle against terrorism.”
Given this context, the idea that Zamalek’s White Knights were intentionally targeted is, for James Dorsey, “not an unreasonable conclusion, but I don’t think it’s an established fact.”
But for the likes of Abdelhamid, there are just too many coincidences, and UWK represent too much of a potential threat to the regime, for Sunday’s stampede to have happened because of incompetence alone. “I think the regime was shaking with fear,” says Abdelhamid. “To the degree that it imagined that the entrance of fans at this time of clear political upheaval might cause embarrassment to the regime in Egypt, that the chants of the fans would convey the facts about the political regime in Egypt.”
Additional reporting: Manu Abdo