Other face of Tahrir

James M. Dorsey
Egyptian demonstrators determined to unseat the country’s military rulers 
have found a battle-ready ally, ultras from the country’s biggest football 
Egyptian army soldiers stand guard atop a concrete block barricade while protesters chant slogans near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is bracing for a ‘last chance’ rally today. AP photo

Egyptian army soldiers stand guard atop a concrete block barricade while protesters chant slogans near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is bracing for a ‘last chance’ rally today. AP photo

It was mid-afternoon on Saturday, the 
second day of mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand 
an end to military rule, when a cry went out for help from the 
ultras, Egypt’s militant, violence-prone, highly politicized football 
fans. Under attack by security forces, protesters, unwilling to back
down, were looking at what amounts to the Egyptian revolt’s 
shock troops for protection.

“We initially stayed away when the families of the people killed 
during the uprising went back out to Tahrir. The police violence 
changed our minds. We experienced it first-hand before. We have 
zero tolerance for it,” said Abu Ala, a member of Ultras Ahlawy, 
fans of one of two of Cairo’s biggest clubs, Al Ahly SC.

Abu Ala and members of his arch enemy, Ultras White Knights
(UWK), supporters of Al Ahly’s historic rival, Al Zamalek SC, 
reached Tahrir by late afternoon. It was the second time in the
more than a century-old history of the two clubs that their 
supporters joined forces rather than faced off in violent street 
brawls to face a common enemy: first the autocratic regime of 
President Hosni Mubarak whom they helped topple early this year 
and this week to push for an end to military rule.

“The Central Security Forces had run the protesters out of Tahrir 
Square,” recalls Hassan Sharif, a protester who has been in Tahrir since 
the protests erupted a week ago. “Security forces had occupied the 
roundabout. The Ultras White Knights charged from the museum, 
yelling the chant about how they’ll f*ck the CSF up.”

Within an hour, the security forces had pulled back, only to return on 
Sunday backed by military police who briefly retook the Square. The 
battle has been raging since.

Led by ultras – angry young men with no political affiliations and 
warrior-like zeal – armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails, they have 
been battling security forces for almost a week now in the streets around 
Tahrir as they fight amid the wail of ambulances and the roar of armored 
vehicles, so far unsuccessfully, to make their way to the Interior Ministry, 
home to the hated security forces. “A red line has been crossed, there is no 
turning back. It doesn’t matter what price we pay in lives. We are not 
giving in,” vowed one ultra while speaking on a mobile phone, the sound 
of a street battle punctuating his words

Unlike other groups in Tahrir, the ultras are respected and celebrated 
by the protesters and feared by the security forces. Modeled on groups
 in Italy and Serbia, the ultras – self-defined anarchists whose militant 
support for their clubs is expressed with chanting, jumping up and 
down, fireworks, flares and smoke guns – the ultras were early this year
(and now again) the only group in Tahrir with years of street-battle 
experience garnered in weekly battles in the stadiums with security 
forces and the supporters of their rivals.

Their fearlessness, willingness to put their lives on the line and battle 
tactics gave protesters a sense of power and the courage to stand their 
man alongside the ultras.

Beyond the more than 30 people already killed in the last week and 
the more than 1,500 wounded, football may be another victim of 
the battle for Egypt’s future. Like in January when Egypt’s premier 
league was suspended for three months to prevent the pitch from 
becoming an opposition rallying point, the Egyptian Football 
Association (EFA) is considering cancelling the kick-off of 
next month’s season. “What is happening now in Egypt is 
spoiling our football,” said EFA President Samir Zaher, a 
Mubarak-era appointee whose resignation the ultras have been 
demanding for months.

That is a price the ultras were willing to pay early this year and are 
happy to pay again. “The blood of the martyrs won’t be for free,” 
chanted Nader el-Sayed, a former Egypt goalkeeper, the only player
 to have joined protesters early this year. He is now back in Tahrir Square.


Al Ahly and Zamalek are two sides of Egypt’s most heated football 
rivalry, one of the fiercest in the world.

The teams are the most successful in Egypt, with the clubs having won 
47 of the 55 seasons in the Premier League. Al Ahly is dominant with 
36 titles as opposed to Zamalek’s 11.

Fan violence is a regular part of that rivalry, while matches between 
the two sides can be so controversial that the Egyptian Football 
Federation usually hires a foreign referee to officiate the game.

Like many football rivalries, the divide between the opposing sides has 
its roots in social life. Zamalek are seen as aristocrats of the domestic 
gameand a team of “foreigners,” while Al Ahly, which translates as 
“The National,” is usually seen as the team of the common Egyptian.


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