Egyptian battle lines harden as ultras learn from failures of past Arab revolutionaries

Ultras face off with security forces on Tahrir Square (Source: Hurriyet Daily News)

By James M. Dorsey

The battle lines between militant soccer fans, the country’s ruling military and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) have hardened threatening to disrupt Egypt’s Premier League with authorities and clubs postponing matches in a bid to prevent potentially violent protest against the government and the soccer body.

This week’s cancellation of a match between crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC and Ismaily SC and a request by Ahly arch rival Al Zamalek SC that its game against Arab Contractors SC because of anticipated fan violence follows last month’s pitched battles near Cairo’s Tahrir between security forces and protesters led by ultras, militant, highly politicized, violence prone soccer fans who played an in important role in the protests that early this year toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

As a result, the interior ministry ordered the postponement of the Al Ahly-Ismaily match, which was supposed to be played on Tuesday behind closed doors in line with the EFA’s penalizing of the Cairo club for earlier disruption of matches by Ultras Ahlawy, the clubs militant fan group. Egyptian press reports quoted ministry officials as saying the postponement was necessary to ensure security during the second phase of Egypt’s parliamentary elections scheduled for Wednesday.

For its part, Zamalek said on its website that it had asked the EFA to postpone its match against Arab Contractors scheduled for Wednesday because of the elections. The club said that it feared that security forces may not be able to focus on the match and that incident could jeopardize the “safety of their players and management staff.”

Ultras Ahlawy and its Zamalek counterpart, Ultras White Knights (UWK), have vowed to defy an EFA crackdown on their club support tactics, which involve the use during matches of fireworks, flares, smoke guns, loud chanting and anti-EFA and government banners.

Besides banning spectators, the EFA, acting on instructions of the interior ministry, has warned clubs that they would be fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,750) fine whenever fans set off a firecracker in a stadium. The instructions were reportedly handed down in a meeting between EFA president Samir Zaher with the newly appointed Interior Minister General Mohamed Ibrahim and Information Minister Mohamed Abdel Kader Mohamed Salem.

In a statement on their Facebook page that has some 255,000 followers, Ultras Ahlawy said last week that it would defy the spectator ban in the match against Ismaily  to deliver a message to “all remnants of the ousted regime” that they would not obey their “manipulated regime.”

In their statement, the ultras said: “The issue is bigger than football. We want to settle the score with remnants of the former regime, under the leadership of Samir Zaher, and their oppression of Egyptian youth.”

UWK issued a similar statement saying that “we suffered a lot from injustice and repression in the past, but we stood up to that with pride. We fought with all our might to maintain our principles and freedom. We thought justice and freedom would come after our revolution. We will continue in our defense of freedom even with our blood. Our war with the EFA will continue until we win and see the corrupt people in prison.”

At the core of the ultras’ defiance is the instinctive learning of the lessons of the failures of Arab revolutionaries in the 1970s and 1980s like prominent Syria poet Adonis and Marxist ideologue Yasin Al-Hafiz whose calls for leaving no stone in society unturned were stymied by autocratic leaders cloaked in the mantle of Arab nationalism.

The ultras alongside other youth groups were determined in the months leading up to the first post-Mubarak elections to foil the military’s attempts at operating on the principle of the emperor is dead, long live the emperor. The military’s mishandling of the transition, crude attempts to undermine a democratic process and intimidation tactics sparked the November protests and pitched battles in which 42 people were killed. “Cairo’s Tahrir Square is in a certain sense the paradigm for all the other Tahrir Squares in the Arab world” said prominent Syrian intellectual Sadik Al-Azm in a recent lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), describing it as resistance to persistent efforts by ancien regimes in the Middle East and North Africa to effectively retain some degree of power.

What began in November as a human barricade predominantly created by ultras responding to a call from protesters in Tahrir Square for protection from the security forces bent on clearing the area escalated into a battle with its own dynamics. Police faced off with protesters, who were armed with rocks, Molotov cocktails and homemade explosive devices using teargas and at times live ammunition. The ultras put their street battle experience, garnered in years of clashes in stadiums, on full display as they went into action resembling a well-oiled machine that played hide and seek with security forces.

As the frontline in the ‘Battle of the Dakhliya (interior ministry)’ or alternatively dubbed the Battle of Mohammed Mahmoud – the epicenter of the confrontation just off Tahrir Square -- moved at times closer to and then further away from the ministry, Chinese-made motorcycles carried the wounded to safety. Shamarikh, the controversial, colored fireworks employed by the ultras during soccer matches lit up the sky at night replacing street lights that had been turned off. Theirs was as much a battle for karama or dignity as it was part of the fight to hold the military to its pledge to lead the country to democracy. Their dignity is vested in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya, the knowledge that they no longer can be abused by security forces without recourse and the fact that they no longer have to pay off each and every policemen to stay out of trouble.

Ironically, there was a shared sense between security forces and ultras that for the first time in five years on-going battles it was the interior ministry forces rather than the soccer fans fighting for their own survival. The police’s tarnished image as enforcers of a brutal regime remained unchanged nine months after Mubarak’s downfall and, if anything, had been reinforced by the military’s refusal to hold police officers accountable for their brutality despite pressure from the public as well as reform-minded security personnel.

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


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