Soccer is Politics (JMD in The American Interest)

Published on: November 21, 2015

Why Egypt’s repressive regime considers soccer fans one
of its biggest threats.
hmed (not his real name) is an Egyptian soccer fan
—and a fugitive. He has been expelled from
university, convicted twice in absentia, and sentenced
to two long terms in prison. He moves around
Cairo in a protective crouch, speaks in a low voice to
avoid being overheard, and looks furtively over his
shoulder as he organizes flash protests against the
government of General-turned-President Abdel
Fattah al Sisi.

Ahmed is a leader of a militant soccer fan group
called Ultras Nahdawy (“ultra” is a term for a
hardcore soccer fan first used in Italy). Like other
such groups, it is constantly in danger of being banned
by the Sisi government under new, sweeping
anti-terror legislation that targets dissent as much
as political violence. Ahmed sees Nahdawy,
founded by soccer fans as a Muslim Brotherhood
support group in 2012, together with the main
anti-Sisi student organization, Students Against the
Coup, as a healthy outlet for disaffected youth
at risk of radicalization. “We don’t like violence
but we are not weak”, Ahmad insists, sipping coffee
in a hip café in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood.
“Hope keeps us going. We believe that there still are
options. We created options on Tahrir Square. This
regime is more brutal [than the Mubarak regime] but
there still are options.”

Yusuf Salheen echoes Ahmed’s words. A 22-year-old
leader of Students Against the Coup, created in
2013 after security forces killed more than 600
people at a Brotherhood sit-in, he studies Islam
at Cairo’s prestigious Al Azhar University. Salheen
was luckier than Ahmed and more than 1,500 other
students who have been detained by security
forces, not to mention 2,000 others merely ejected
from their institutions of higher learning: He
defended himself successfully in a university hearing
called to debar him. “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”, he said.

The concerns of Ahmed and Salheen are real. Sisi
has brutally repressed all opposition, including the
Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned as
a terrorist organization immediately after the
military coup in 2013 that deposed Mohammed Morsi,
a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically
elected president. The crackdown has left disaffected
youth with a stark choice: Either apathetically accept
a status quo in which the government fails to
offer them any prospect of a socially and
economically viable future, or engage in violent
resistance. The student groups and soccer clubs try to
offer a third choice: nonviolent resistance.

ith stadiums closed to the public for much of the
past four years to prevent them from becoming
anti-government rallying points, militant soccer
fans have had fewer opportunities to live out
either their passion for their team or their frustration
with Egypt’s politics. Nonetheless, there are
multiple potential flashpoints to watch in the
coming months.

One is the final outcome of the retrial of 73
people accused of causing the deaths of 74
members of Ultras Ahlawy (fans of storied Cairo
club Al Ahli SC) in a politically motivated brawl
in the Suez Canal city in 2012. The details of what
happened in Port Said remain murky, but what is
clear is that the national security forces
manipulated the traditional rivalry between the
Ahlawy and Masri fans and allowed the deadly brawl
to proceed while ensuring that the Ahli supporters
could not escape.

The accused include supporters of Port Said’s Al
Masri SC as well as nine security officials and
executives of the club. Many people believe that
security forces began the brawl to punish Ahlawy
for its role in toppling President Hosni Mubarak
in 2011 and opposing the military government
that succeeded him. A court sentenced 21 of the Al
Masri fans to death in 2013, sparking a popular
revolt in cities along the Suez Canal that forced
then-President Morsi to declare an emergency and
deploy troops to the region.

A June retrial reduced the number of death
sentences to 11, but appeals are still pending. They
could well spark the next confrontation. Whatever
the court finally decides, one set of ultras—whether
Al Masri’s Green Eagles or Al Ahli’s Ultras Ahlawy
—is likely to express their anger at the verdict. Al
Masri fans have already protested against the June
development in the streets of Port Said.

A second court case and potential flashpoint
involves 16 members of the Ultras White Knights
(UWK), supporters of Al Ahli arch-rival Al
Zamalek SC, who are charged with causing the deaths
of 20 fans at Cairo stadium in February. Prosecutor
Hesham Barakat and Zamalek President Mortada
Mansour have accused the UWK of having accepted
funds from the Brotherhood in return for provoking
the stadium incident. Barakat asserted that some of
the alleged Brothers had confessed to planning and
funding the incident in an attempt to dissuade
foreign investors.

To many people, the charges seem trumped up.
Cairoscene, an Egyptian news website, opined that
the assertion of a conspiracy between the UWK
and the Brotherhood “seems ridiculous, considering
there was clear evidence that security was
mismanaged. Fans were forced to enter through
one singular metal cage, which ultimately collapsed.
At the same time police fired tear gas at the
crowds arguably fuelling the stampede that resulted
in many of the deaths.” The charges against the UWK
 reinforced the conviction of the group, shared by
other ultras, that the regime is targeting them. ”We
have no confidence in the justice system or the
government’s willingness to ensure that justice is
served”, said one UWK member.

Meanwhile, the ban on spectators in Egyptian
stadiums, which was at the root of the Cairo
stadium incident, continues to keep unrest high
among fans. Repeated attempts to reopen stadiums
have stalled, with the government, the clubs, and
stadium owners failing to agree on what kind of
security would be needed to prevent a resurgence
of anti-government protests within the stadiums.
Testing the water before a relaxation of the ban,
Egypt’s interior ministry agreed to allow 25,000 fans
to attend a November 17 qualifier between Egyptian
teams for the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Mali.
The game took place without incident in a stadium
secured by the Falcon Group, a private security firm
closely tied to Sisi. (It provided security for his 2013
election campaign and began securing
universities with rebellious student bodies in the
same year, causing many deaths and even more
injuries.) This success may lead to a re-opening
of stadiums under tight security. However, alarmed by
the attacks in Paris that included a stadium, Egypt’s
authorities will probably follow Turkey’s failed
attempt to depoliticize stadiums by introducing
electronic ticket systems that register personal
details of spectators.

The fans got a chilling reminder of how the regime
views them from a leak to Al Jazeera earlier this
year. On an audio recording, Interior Minister
Muhammad Ibrahim, a member of the Morsi
government instrumental in overthrowing it and
facilitating the military takeover, is heard discussing
with senior officers of Egypt’s notorious Central
Security Force (CSF) how the government can
crack down on protesters. He suggests that the CSF
should shoot protesters using anything “permitted by
law without hesitation, from water to machine
guns.” The meeting on the tape is thought to have
occurred not long before a major anti-government
protest in November 2014, at which police killed
at least four people.

Ibrahim goes on to say that no attempt at political
change in Egypt would succeed without the
support of the military and the police—in his
words, “the strongest institutions in the state.”

gypt’s first groups of ultras emerged in 2007,
inspired by similar groups in Serbia and Italy formed
by militant fans who found each other online. The
European ultras expressed their aggressive support for
their clubs and artistic appreciation of the
game through intimidating chants, poetry, banners,
fireworks, flares, smoke guns, and continuous
jumping up and down during matches. The Egyptian
fans took up these passionate (and dangerous)
displays with enthusiasm. They also adopted the
ultras’ analysis of the power system governing
the sport’s professional teams. It defines the fans as a
club’s only true supporters, the club management
as corrupt pawns of a repressive government, and
players as mercenaries who offered themselves to
the highest bidder. The Egyptian fans embraced
the ultras’ principle, “All Cops are Pigs”, as their
own—a no-brainer in a country whose security
forces, to many the face of a repressive regime, are
its most hated institution.

The ultras’ power analysis emboldened them to
claim ownership of stadiums in a country that
tolerated no independent or uncontrolled public
space, and put them in direct confrontation with
security forces determined to uphold the established
order. But the ultras had an advantage: they
aimed at the Achilles’ heel of the Mubarak regime. 

Aside from the mosques, the
stadiums were the only public
spaces that the government could
not simply shut down entirely,

Aside from the mosques, the stadiums were the
only public spaces that the government could not
simply shut down entirely, because nothing
evokes the kind of deep-seated passion in Egyptians
that soccer and religion do. Eager to crush the
threat but recognizing the political benefits of
influencing one of the most important activities in
the lives of Egyptian men, the regime had little
alternative but to fight for control.

The ultras’ regular clashes with security forces in
the stadiums made the games a magnet for
thousands of frustrated and angry youth, turning the
sum total of rival fan groups into one of Egypt’s
foremost social movements alongside the Brotherhood
and labor. By the time mass protests against Mubarak
erupted in early 2011, the ultras had become highly
organized, politicized, street fight-hardened shock
troops who formed the demonstrators’ first line
of defense against security forces, persuading the
protesters to stand their ground in Cairo’s Tahrir

Ahmed and Salheen hope to repeat that
performance in an environment that is far more
repressive and brutal than the Mubarak era. In a
replay of the ultras’ role in the toppling of
Mubarak and the protests against
subsequent military governments, Ahmed and
his fellow ultras form the front-line defence
against security forces in demonstrations on
campuses and in popular neighborhoods. They
use the same tactics of chanting, jumping up and
down, and using flares and firework they employed
in support of their clubs. Security forces have
killed some 17 members of Nahdawy, which has
branches in most Egyptian universities, in the past
two years.

Between protesting and avoiding capture (or worse),
Ahmed and Salheen have their plates full. Scores of
ultras and students are on trial for protesting on
campuses and in neighborhoods during the past two
years, as well as for soccer-related actions like the
storming of Zamalek’s headquarters and Cairo
airport’s arrival hall.

The regime targets ultras not only on the streets and
in the courts but also in the military, which asks
conscripts whether they belong to a militant soccer
fan 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
conscript who hid his affiliation recounted. At the
same time, fringes of Nahdawy and Students Against
the Coup’s audience of ultras and students
have grown increasingly radical.

“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 UWK’s original
founders, who has since distanced himself from the
group. He said that Sisi would be unwise to repeat
Mubarak’s mistake of underestimating the
groundswell of anger and frustration among Egypt’s
youth at the closing of the stadiums to the public
and at the security forces’ strict control over university

charismatic radical can rise fast in the loose
organization of the ultras. Said Moshagheb, a
mesmerizing, undereducated soccer fan, was
representative of the thousands of angry young
men joining protests in Egypt—except he managed to
oust the UWK leaders and founders in a dramatic
coup in 2012 involving a melee on the pitch of an
Egypt-Tunisia game. Arrested in April 2015, he was
acquitted in May of charges that he had been
involved in a plot to kill Al Zamalek SC
President Mortada Mansour, but he remains
imprisoned. Sources close to the ultras as well as
Moshagheb’s family said the UWK leader had been
under police surveillance for some time for
smuggling arms from the Sinai, the home base for
 jihadi groups linked to ISIS.

Other soccer fans have travelled to join the terror
group itself. A former leader of Ultras
Ahlawi in the Mediterranean port city of
Alexandria, Rami Iskanderiya, 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. A third
ultra, Hassan Kazarlan, was in Turkey en route to
Syria when he was persuaded to return to Egypt
after security forces detained his father as a hostage.

Moshagheb, Iskanderiya, and Kazarlan exemplify
one response to the repression of the Sisi regime and
the violence that followed the general’s overthrow of
Morsi in 2013. Groups like Ultras Nahdawy and
Students against the Coup hope to stymie this
response. But it is difficult, and growing more so.

“Take Alf Maskan [an Islamist stronghold in
Cairo]”, 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.”

“Success for us is our survival and ability to keep
trying. The government wants to provoke us
into becoming violent. Two years later, we are still
active. . . . 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 explained.

Though they oppose the regime, the soccer fans are
not partisans of the Muslim 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”, Ahmed said. Since there is now no
alternative in sight to the military dictatorship,
Ahmed and his fellow fans will go their own way.

ack in the early 20th century, celebrations of Al
Ahli’s victories by anti-colonial and anti-monarchical
soccer fans often exploded into anti-British protests.
Twelve years after the club’s establishment,
university student fans led anti-British demonstrations
during the 1919 revolution. That uprising, fuelled by
deep-seated resentment of British manipulation of
the economy, the heavily British-staffed
bureaucracy, and the war-time requisitioning of
Egyptian assets, led to Egypt’s independence three
years later.

The chants of protesting student soccer fans a
century ago reverberate today in updated form in
universities that have become security force-controlled
fortresses and in flash protests in popular
neighbourhoods. Almost a hundred years ago, students
adapted a song written by Sayed Darwish, an Egyptian
singer and composer widely viewed as the father of
Egyptian popular music:

“We are the students

We don’t care if we go to prison, nor do we care
about the governorate.

We’re used to living on bread, and sleeping with
no blankets

Al Ahli against the British Rule.”

Today they proclaim that “the students are
back,” a slogan inspired by a song by Imam
Mohammed Ahmed Eissa, a composer and singer
known for his political songs that focus on the plight
of the poor.

Students shaped Egypt’s history again later in the
20th century, by rejuvenating the Muslim
Brotherhood in the 1970s. The Brotherhood had
been withering under a brutal crackdown by Gamal
Abdel Nasser that had forced many of its
leaders to go underground or leave the country, but
after Nasser died in 1970, it slowly began to revive.

“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. . . . The real story
of this era revolves around a vibrant youth
movement based in Egypt’s colleges and
universities,” said historian Abdullah
Al-Arian, author of Answering the Call,
Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, in an
interview with the online publication Jadaliyya.

For men like Ahmed and Salheen, however, the
modern youth movement is 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,”
Salheen said.

The uphill battle of soccer fans and students for
political change is not only hampered by the
government’s relentless repression. It also is
stymied by the widespread apathy of an
Egyptian public disillusioned by the failure of the
2011 revolt to bring reform, tired of political
volatility, and desperate to see their country return to
stability and trickle-down economic growth. These
Egyptians may not be starry-eyed about Sisi’s
ability to deliver, but they see no viable alternative.

As a shopkeeper in one of Cairo’s upmarket
neighborhoods put it, “The protesters have nothing to
offer. The government will crush them. Sisi is not
perfect, but he’s all we have. What we need is
stability to turn the economy around. If that means
putting people in jail, so be it.”

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the
Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and author of the blog
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a forthcoming book with the
same title


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