Militant soccer fans: Egypt’s Hans Brink plugs the dam against radicalization

Middle East
Militant soccer fans: Egypt’s Hans Brink plugs the dam against radicalization

by James M. Dorsey

Said Moshagheb, a mesmerizingly charismatic, under‐educated and unemployed leader of a prominent group of militant, well-organized, and street battle-hardened soccer fans, staged a coup five years ago against the founders and original leaders of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the storied support group of Zamalek SC, one of Egypt’s most celebrated clubs.

The impact of the takeover is today increasingly evident on the embattled campuses of Egyptian universities and in poorer neighborhoods of Egyptian cities, the focal points of protest against the military coup in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and brought general-­‐turned-­‐president Abdel Fattah Al-­‐Sisi to power.

It is also obvious in the UWK’s most recent history and that of Mr. Moshagheb personally, both of which are reflections of a generation that has progressively lost hope and is potentially prone to radicalization. If anything, their histories serve as warning signs that frustration sparked by the success of the military and the security forces in rolling back the achievements of the 2011 popular revolt that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office coupled with Mr. Al-­‐Sisi’s even more repressive policies is fuelling radicalization rather than returning Egypt to stability and equitable economic growth.

Mr. Moshagheb staged the first phase of his takeover during a historic match between Zamalek and Tunisia’s Club Africain, the first encounter between two teams whose supporters months earlier had played important roles in the toppling of their countries’ leaders.[i]

Emboldened by the fact that he and thousands of militant fans or ultras for the first time in four years of pitched battles against security forces in stadia, found the pitch virtually devoid of police and themselves in control of the stadium, Mr. Moshagheb led an invasion of the pitch three minutes into stoppage time after the referee disallowed a Zamalek goal because the scoring player was offside. The violent invasion left five Tunisian players injured and UWK’s founding leaders in shock.[ii]

To many of the ultras, the ceding of control of the stadium symbolized their victory two months earlier as part Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow. Mr. Moshagheb and his ultras arrived the day of the match at the Cairo International Stadium braced for another battle with security forces who had long tried to prevent the fans from bringing their flares, smoke guns, and often politically-loaded banners into the arena. Police had repeatedly advised the UWK in the 24 hours prior to the match that they would be blocked from entering with their paraphernalia that is a staple of ultras performances worldwide.

Yet, when the ultras got to the stadium the gates were unmanned and police and security forces were absent but for some 30 unarmed officers dressed in light blue training suits deployed to protect a small group of visiting Club Africain supporters. Police and security forces, Egypt’s most brutal and despised institution because of its brutal role as the strong arm of the repressive Mubarak regime, had opted not to engage in another clash with what had become one of Egypt’s foremost social movements, in a bid to avoid further tarnishing of their image. Moreover, a breakdown of law and order would illustrate the need for a security force that ensures safety and law and order.[iii]

In effect, Mr. Moshagebh and his followers walked into the security forces’ trap. Their failure to recognize the strategy of a security force whose training and experience had taught them little more than repressive tactics represented a generational shift among the ultras from a highly politicized leadership to one of disaffected youth whose vision went little beyond deep-seated hatred of the police and distrust of the state.

To the founders of various groups of ultras in Egypt, the battle for the stadia in the Mubarak years constituted a struggle for public space in a country governed by a regime that tolerated no uncontrolled public spaces. The ultras constituted the only group willing to not only challenge government control of public space but also to putting their lives on the line in staking their claim. They derived their title to the stadium from their analysis of the power structure of the sport that positioned ultras as the only true supporters of the club as opposed to a corrupt management that was a pawn of the regime and players who were mercenaries who played for the highest bidder.

In doing so, the ultras challenged the Achilles Heel of the regime given that stadia alongside mosques were the two public spaces that the government could not simply shut down because nothing evoked the kind of deep-­‐seated passion that soccer and religion did. As a result, the government eager to crush the threat to its authority while wanting to reap the political benefits of association with one of the most important things in the lives of Egyptian men, saw little alternative but to fight for control.

And that was what attracted the likes of Mr. Moshagebh who was representative of the thousands of young, under-­‐educated and un-­‐or under-­‐employed men who joined the ranks of the ultras in the waning years of the Mubarak regime because the fans were the only organized group that persistently and physically stood up to corrupt and brutal security forces who made their lives difficult in the stadia as well as in the neighborhoods where they lived.

An action-­‐oriented new generation

Mr. Moshagheb’s pitch invasion symbolized the side lining of the UWK’s founding leadership who had a far more worked out ideological concept of who the ultras were and what their role as a movement was. Mr. Moshagebh finalized his takeover months after the pitch invasion by brutally pushing out the UWK’s founders, some of whom were attacked and injured by his knife-­‐wielding followers.

“This is a new generation. It’s a generation that can’t be controlled. They don’t read. They believe in action and experience. They have balls. When the opportunity arises they will do something bigger than we ever did,” said one of the group’s founders who has since distanced himself from the UWK. The founder cautioned against repeating the mistake of the Mubarak era when policymakers and analysts underestimated the groundswell of anger and frustration among youth that was bubbling at the surface.[iv]

To be sure, UWK has issued blistering statements since some 20 of its members were killed in February in a stampede outside Cairo’s Air Defence stadium in an area surrounded by military-owned land and facilities. The stampede was sparked by security forces who corralled spectators seeking access to the first match for the better part of three years that was open to the public and used tear gas and birdshot against a crowd that had no escape route.[v] Similarly, little UWK action is expected when 16 ultras and alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood go on trial on April 18 in connection with the stampede.

“Nothing will happen. Standing up to the regime amounts to suicide. The question is how long that perception will last. The closing of the stadia shuts down the only release valve. Things will eventually burst. When and where nobody knows. But the writing is on the wall,” said a source close to the ultras.[vi]

The UWK has been equally restrained since the arrest last month of Mr. Moshagebh. He has been kept incommunicado since his detention on charges of founding an illegal organization. Mr. Moshagebh was however acquitted in late March in a case in which he was one of eight UWK members accused of attacking Zamalek president Mortada Mansour with acid that the ultra say was urine.

Mr. Moshagheb’s case lifts the veil on a process of radicalization at the fringe of the ultras fuelled by policies of the Al-Sisi government that are more restrictive and repressive of those of the toppled Mubarak regime. It also puts into perspective the war being waged against the UWK by Mr. Mansour, a larger than life figure who has twice failed to persuade a court to outlaw the ultras as a terrorist organization on the grounds that the group tried to assassinate him and prides himself on having requested the police action against fans in February that sparked the stampede. The case also positions widespread student anti- government protests in the last two years on university campuses and in popular neighborhoods in which members of the UWK and Ultras Ahlawy, the support group of Zamalek arch rival Al-Ahli SC, play a key role.

Sources close to the ultras said Mr. Moshagebh was suspected by authorities of having been involved in violent resistance to the Al‐Sisi government. They said the UWK leader had been under surveillance for some time during which he had been smuggling arms into Cairo from Sinai, the setting for an armed insurgency that is being fuelled by neglect of the region by successive governments and a brutal military crackdown. The sources said that AK‐47s had been found in the homes of friends of Mr. Moshagebh some two weeks before his arrest.[vii]

Mr. Moshagebh was arrested after he and another ultra, Hassan Kazarlan, allegedly set fire to a Cairo convention fire. Sixteen people were injured in the incident. Mr. Kazarlan fled to Turkey after the arson attack.[viii] He was persuaded to return to Egypt after security forces detained his father as a hostage and immediately detained upon his arrival. Sources close to Mr. Kazarlan’s family said he had told authorities that he had wanted to travel from Turkey to Syria. They said he provoked security force ire by accusing his interrogators of being infidels.[ix]

If he had made it to Syria, Mr. Kazarlan would have followed in the footsteps of Rami Iskanderiya, a former leader of Ultras Ahlawi in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, who joined the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, and married a Syrian woman in the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

Tarek M. Elawady, a lawyer for the UWK, said Mr. Kazarlan had led security forces to Mr. Moshagebh’s when he revealed his whereabouts under torture. Mr. Elawady was careful to insist that he represented the UWK and Mr. Moshagebh only in as far as his legal problems were related to the ultras.

“Mortada wanted to drive a wedge between the UWK rank and file and its leaders who may have had political affiliations. Mortada provoked them to be violent… His actions are part of a government plan to weaken any youth group that opposes the state… The problem is that Mortada is playing the security forces’ game. He acts as their agent provocateur,”[x] Mr. Elawady said, speaking in his office close to the brooding headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the term broadly used for intelligence and law enforcement that is surrounded by grimy walls, barbed wire and watch towers that give it a dark and sinister look.

The targeting of ultras is evident not only in Mr. Mansour’s campaign as well as the judicial crackdown on militant soccer fans but also in the military where conscripts are asked after being drafted whether they are members of an ultras group. Those that respond affirmatively are singled out. “They were immediately ordered to do 100 push-­‐ups during which an officer shouted at them: ‘You are the lowest creatures. You sacrifice yourselves for your club, not for your religion or country,’” a source recounted.[xi]

Sources close to the ultras said Mr. Moshagebh had wanted (in late January around the fourth anniversary of the revolt that toppled Mr. Mubarak) to escalate protests in Cairo neighbourhoods like Matareya, a stronghold of the Brotherhood that was outlawed as a terrorist organization after the toppling of Mr. Mortada. Some 17 of the 74 Ultras Ahlawy members killed in 2012 in a politically loaded brawl in the stadium of the Suez Canal city of Port Said hailed from Matareya, the scene of multiple anti-­‐government protests that is known for its stock piles of illegal arms, drug dealing and high crime rate.[xii]

Mr. Moshagebh’s alleged failed attempt to escalate the protests in Matareya into an armed conflict coupled with flash protests that have largely moved from campuses to neighborhoods on Fridays after midday prayers because of security force control of universities reflect efforts by those segments of the ultras with access to a better education to maintain pressure on the government while preventing mounting frustration and anger from sparking nihilistic violence.

A glimmer of hope

Leaders of Ultras Nahdawy, a group of politicized soccer fans that was initially formed by members of the UWK and Ultras Ahlawy in 2012 to support Mr. Morsi but grew exponentially in the wake of the brutal ending in August 2013 of a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in on Raba'a al-Adawiya Square, one of two protest squares, in which security forces killed more than 600 people, and Students against the Coup, see themselves as forces trying to provide disaffected youth with a glimmer of hope. Ultras Nahdawy constitutes a break with the global culture of militant soccer fans that projects itself as apolitical and exclusively associated with a club.

Nahdawy with some 65,000 followers on Facebook[xiii] has defined itself as explicitly political and is not associated with any one club. It has long been viewed as being affiliated with the Brotherhood. “Many of us are Islamists. I am a member of the Brotherhood, but that is not why we supported the Brotherhood. We don’t want to be inside the Brotherhood or the system. We supported Morsi not because he was a brother but because we wanted a revolutionary force to be in government. The Brotherhood was the only revolutionary force that had a candidate and popular support and was part of the (2011) revolution,” said a leader of the Nahdawy, who asked to be identified only as Ahmed.[xiv]

A member of an ultras group that played a key role in the popular revolt on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 who has since been expelled from university for organizing anti-­‐ government protests and sentenced twice in absentia to long-­‐term incarceration, Ahmed is a fugitive who moves around Cairo in a protective cocoon, speaks in a low voice to avoid being overheard, and regularly looks furtively over his shoulder. Like during the revolt on Tahrir, Ahmed and his fellow ultras form the front-­‐line defense against security forces in protests on campuses and in neighborhoods. Their ultras-­‐rooted tactics of chanting, jumping up and down and using flares and fireworks are evident in the protests. Some 17 members of Nahdawy that has branches in most Egyptian universities have been killed in clashes with security forces in the last two years.

Yusuf Salheen, a 22-year old leader of Students Against the Coup, a group that was formed in the wake of the Raba'a al-Adawiya crackdown that has a presence not only in universities but also in vocational institutions, said some 3,000 students had been arrested in the past two years, 1,500 of which were still in detention. Mr. Salheen, a student of Islam at Cairo’s prestigious Al Azhar University, who positions himself as an Islamist but not a member of the Brotherhood, said that some 2,000 students had been expelled from university because of their opposition to the Al-Sisi government. Mr. Salheen successfully defended himself against an effort to expel him from Al-Azhar. He said university dormitories like stadia were being shut down to deprive students from using them as a protest rallying point.[xv]

“We are looking for alternative outside the campus. We have managed to do so in neighbourhoods and smaller universities that are less controlled. We’re looking at new strategies and options given that the risk is becoming too high. We are absolutely concerned that if we fail things will turn violent. Going violent would give the regime the perfect excuse. We would lose all public empathy. We hope that Egyptians realize that there are still voices out there that are not giving up and are keeping protests peaceful despite all that has happened,” Mr. Salheen said.

“We don’t like violence but we are not weak. Hope keeps us going. We believe that there still are options. We created options on Tahrir Square. This regime is more brutal but there still are options. Success for us is our survival and ability to keep trying. The government wants to provoke us to become violent. Two years later, we are still active. Politics is about making deals; revolution is putting your life on the line. We are the generation that staged the revolution. The new generation no longer cares. Our role is to get the new generation to re-join the revolution. The government markets itself with promises and the power of the state. We can promise only one thing: we will stay on the street. To us football is politics, politics is in everything. That’s why we tackle politics,” Ahmed added.

A catalyst of Islamist change

Steeped in the history of the ultras, the student movement and the Brotherhood, men like Ahmed and Mr. Salheen see themselves not only as opponents of what they view as a dictatorial regime but also of agents of change within the Islamist movement. They base themselves on the history of a student movement that since the crackdown on the Brotherhood by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the visionary Egyptian leader who toppled the monarchy in 1952 and became a symbol of Arab nationalism, was the Brotherhood’s catalyst for adaptation.

“The Muslim Brotherhood of the early 1970s was a shell of its former self. Many of the surviving activists, numbering barely one hundred members, were not even certain that they wanted to resurrect the organization’s mission upon their release from prison. The real story of this era revolves around a vibrant youth movement based in Egypt’s colleges and universities. Even as they rebelled against the tenets of Nasserism, the youth of this period were the products of its socioeconomic policies, from increased urbanization to greater access to education. They found in their Islamic identity a response to the post-­‐ 1967 crisis, even as they adopted the modes of popular contention that had emerged under Nasser. The student movement was notable for the fluidity it displayed on the ideological level and the dynamism it exhibited on the organizational front,” said historian Abdullah Al-­‐Arian, author of Answering the Call, Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, in an interview with Jadaliyya.[xvi]

“The real story of this era revolves around a vibrant youth movement based in Egypt’s colleges and universities. Even as they rebelled against the tenets of Nasserism, the youth of this period were the products of its socioeconomic policies, from increased urbanization to greater access to education. They found in their Islamic identity a response to the post-­‐1967 crisis, even as they adopted the modes of popular contention that had emerged under Nasser. The student movement was notable for the fluidity it displayed on the ideological level and the dynamism it exhibited on the organizational front,” Mr. Al-­‐ Arian said.

The scholar went on to say that his book looks “at the parallel developments occurring across the student movement broadly and internally within the re-emerging Muslim Brotherhood. The book weaves together a narrative that examines critical moments where these forces intersected and traces the path taken by the bulk of the student movement’s leadership as it ultimately ‘graduated’ to take on the Muslim Brotherhood’s mission and adopt its organizational model. One of the study’s key findings is that, even as they attempted to reassert the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional hierarchical structure, senior figures like Mustafa Mashhur, Kamal al-­‐Sananiri, and Umar al-­‐ Tilmisani could not help but adapt their mission to the changing landscape of Islamic activism.”

For men like Ahmed and Mr. Salheen it’s less about the Brotherhood and more about aligning Islamists and revolutionary forces that run the gamut from liberal to conservative, from left to right and from secular to religious in a united front against autocracy. “It’s not about Morsi, we have bigger fish to fry than Morsi. Most of us no longer believe in the slogan in returning Morsi to office. Thousands are suffering. I don’t give a damn about Morsi. Anything is better than this regime. There are two approaches, the reformist and the revolutionary one. We have seen dramatic shifts since 2011. Both Tahrir Square and Sisi’s junta were dramatic twists. I and many like me believe that another twist is possible even if that will take time,” Mr. Salheen said.

Repression fuels radicalism

Messrs. Ahmed and Salheen are the first to admit that they are fighting multiple uphill battles in which the odds are stacked against them. Their space to maneuver is increasingly being curtailed while their effort to stem radicalization and keep the momentum of peaceful protest is being stymied by policies by Mr. Al-­‐Sisi, who seeks to project himself as an effective bulwark against jihadism.

“Unfortunately the idea that Sisi will be an effective ally against Islamic terrorists is misguided. He has, in fact, become one of the jihadists’ most effective recruiting tools. The simple truth is that, since Sisi took power, the frequency of terrorist attacks in Egypt has soared; there have been more than 700 attacks over 22 months, as opposed to fewer than 90 in the previous 22 months. Harder to measure is the number of young people radicalized by Sisi’s repression, but we can assume it is significant and growing… In this environment, is it surprising that reports surface regularly about the trend of radicalization of Egyptian youth, including previously peaceful Islamists? Sisi’s brutal actions speak far louder than his few words about reforming Islam; to believe that he, or the religious institutions of his government, can have a positive impact on young people susceptible to radicalization is beyond wishful thinking. It would be laughable if it were not dangerous self-­‐delusion...” commented scholars Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne.[xvii]

Radicalization is both a product of the brutality of an unreformed security force and a military whose brutal tactics have turned a local Bedouin population into allies of militants influenced by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. “In Cairo, the police are idiots. They have perfected the art of ensuring that people hate them. One is told in the military that we are the good guys and the police are the bad guys. But in the Sinai, the military is under siege, it moves in convoys that are focused on self-­‐protection and not being blown up by improvised explosive devices. Locals no longer wear traditional Bedouin dress and don western clothing to avoid being detained and harassed by the military who sees the Bedouin as the enemy. Locals used to inform on the jihadists, they no longer do, they look the other way. There is no solution. It’s a battle till death,” said a soccer fan who recently returned from northern Sinai.[xviii]

As a result, uncritical engagement with the Al-­‐Sisi government by the Obama administration and European nations serves to perpetuate a situation in which men like Ahmed and Mr. Salheen resemble Hans Brinker, the eight-­‐year old fairy tale Dutchmen who stopped a flood by putting his finger in a hole in the dike. Endorsement of Mr. Al-­‐Sisi as a regional pillar of stability and a bulwark against radicalization amounts to legitimization of the failure of Egypt’s successive post-­‐revolt governments, both those backed and/or populated by the military as well as that of Mr. Morsi, that opted to cater to the security forces rather than exploit opportunities to introduce long-­‐overdue reforms that would have been crucial for democratization and restoring political stability.

In the case of Mr. Morsi, the attempt to ensure that the security forces would not turn against him backfired. Mr. Morsi’s interior ministry, under which the security forces resorted, played a key role in laying the groundwork for his removal from power and the rise of a state more repressive than that of Mr. Mubarak.

The failure to push for security sector reform granted the security forces time to regroup and exploit instability, deteriorating security, and increased political violence to ensure their immunity to calls for change. Egypt “presents the most egregious example of the consequences of failing to undertake far-­‐reaching security sector reform,” Carnegie Middle East Center scholar Yezid Sayigh noted in a recent study of the politics of police reform in the two post-revolt countries.[xix]

“Ministries of interior remain black boxes with opaque decision-making processes, governed by officer networks that have resisted meaningful reform, financial transparency, and political oversight. Until governments reform their security sectors, rather than appease them, the culture of police impunity will deepen and democratic transition will remain impossible in Egypt and at risk in Tunisia” Mr. Sayigh said.

The death in February of the 20 UWK members was but one example of the consequences of the failure to implement security reform. So was the worst incident in Egyptian sporting history when 74 members of Ultras Ahlawy died in 2012 in the Port Said stadium. Eye witnesses reported at the time that scores of unknown men armed with identical batons had been among those that attacked the Ahli supporters.[xx]

The presence of those men fit the pattern of senior security officers and governors hiring thugs called baltageyya to cooperate in violation of the law with security forces. The practice was expanded in popular neighborhoods where security forces have advised residents to take the law into their own hands by hiring baltageyya. The approach meant that criminal groups often replaced the security forces in neighborhoods. Overall, stepped up brutality by the security forces and their associates has cost the lives of some 1,400 people since the demise of Mr. Morsi.

The security force strategy is backfiring not only in its inability to stymie radicalization but also in the fact that militant soccer fans and students who take to the streets in popular neighbourhoods often are joined by locals. “Take Alf Maskan,” said an ultra and student activist. “Alf Maskan is a traditionally conservative, Islamist neighbourhood. Youth have nothing to look forward to. They are hopeless and desperate. They join our protests but their conversation often focuses on admiration for the Islamic State. They are teetering on the edge. We are their only hope but it’s like grasping for a straw that ultimately is likely to break.”[xxi]

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

[i] James M. Dorsey. 2011. Zamalek Ultras Disrupt African Soccer Match in Stunning Display of Nihilism, The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, April 3,­‐   ultras-­‐disrupt-­‐african-­‐soccer.html
[ii] Ibid. Dorsey
[iii] Ibid. Dorsey
[iv] Interview with the author, March 29, 2015.
[v] James M. Dorsey. 2015. Soccer deaths raise stakes for Egypt’s general-­‐turned-­‐president Al-­‐Sisi, The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, February 9, deaths-raise-stakes-for-egypts.html  
[vi] Interview with the author, March 29, 2015
[vii] Interviews with the author, March 28, 29, 30 and 31, 2015.
[viii] Yara Bayoumy, Stephen Kalin and Ahmed Tolba. 2015. Sixteen injured in fire at Cairo convention center, Reuters,   March 4,
[ix] Interviews with the author, March 28 and 29, 2015. 10 Interview with the author, March 31, 2015.
[x] Interview with the author, March 31, 2015.
[xi] Interview with the author, March 28, 2015
[xii] Interviews with the author March 28, 29, 30 and 31, 2015
[xiv] Interview with the author, March 2015.
[xv] Interview with the author, March 30, 2015.
[xvi] Jadaliyya. 2014. New Texts Out Now: Abdullah Al-Arian, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in
[xvii] Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne. 2015. Obama embraces the Nixon Doctrine in Egypt, The Washington. Post,    April 3,
[xviii] Interview with the author, March 31, 2015.
[xix] Yezid Sayegh. 2015. Missed Opportunity: The Politics of Police Reform in Egypt and Tunisia, Carnegie Middle East Center, March,
[xx] James M. Dorsey. 2012. Ultra Violence - How Egypt’s soccer mobs are threatening the revolution, Foreign Policy, February 2,
[xxi] Interview with the author, March 31, 2015.


Popular posts from this blog

Pakistan caught in the middle as China’s OBOR becomes Saudi-Iranian-Indian battleground

Israeli & Palestinian war crimes? Yes. Genocide? Maybe. A talk with Omer Bartov

Saudi religious diplomacy targets Jerusalem