Football and the game of politics in Egypt

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' call for an official inquiry into football violence, following the deaths of 74 al-Ahly team supporters in February this year, has been rejected by most clubs as a sham designed to obscure the blame that belongs to the Mubarak regime’s structures which orchestrated, and continue to orchestrate, violence.

Egypt and the world were shocked by the carnage which followed the 1st February football match in Port Said between the local team al-Masri and their visiting opponents, al-Ahly from Cairo. The match was televised live, and resulted in a historic 3-1 win for the home team over their bitter rivals, who are also Egypt’s most successful club. Yet straight after the final whistle the TV images showed all hell breaking loose, as al-Masri supporters armed with clubs and knives invaded the pitch, sending al-Ahly players running for their lives, and then engaged in a pitched battle with the visiting club’s supporters – before the floodlights were abruptly turned off, and the melee descended into violent confusion resulting in the killing of 74 al-Ahly supporters and the wounding of hundreds more. The carnage extended right into the visitors’ changing room, where bleeding fans sought refuge and, in some cases, died from their wounds under the horrified eyes of the players and management, scenes caught and replayed endlessly on 24 hour TV news channels.

The following morning reports were rife of standard security checks not having been conducted as fans entered the stadium (even though – for reasons given below - this fixture is always one of the most heated in Egypt’s annual football calendar); of the riot police on duty standing back and letting the al-Masri pitch invasion take place; of the stadium’s gates having been locked, thus preventing fleeing al-Ahly fans from escaping the violence and instead dying of suffocation in the crush; and of the security forces failing to intervene to stop the bloodbath. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was quick to blame both local football hooligans (the notorious ‘Ultras’ – of whom more also below) and foreign agents provocateurs, and to declare three days of national mourning. But a strong current of public opinion instead settled around a very different interpretation of ‘hidden forces’, forming the view that the violence had been both permitted and yet managed (to stop it spiralling out of control) by SCAF and the security forces of the ancien regime, in order to deliberately engineer a real-life example of the chaos and disorder into which the Egyptian revolution would lead if SCAF’s grip on central power was weakened.

The graphic TV images, quickly relayed through the internet, held an immediate horror for me, since I had previously lived in Port Said for eighteen months whilst doing my PhD fieldwork. I remember vividly how the coastal Mediterranean city’s self-styled laissez faire lifestyle of almost sleepy monotony abruptly changed gear on the day each year on which the al-Masri/al-Ahly fixture was scheduled. Tension rose rapidly before the event, and a self-imposed curfew descended ensuring that only the city’s male population patronised its streets and public spaces. All cities and towns in Egypt are, to some extent, football-mad: but Port Said is a city which takes its football fervour to the extreme. Boys learn to dribble from the time they can walk, and street football games are played out as passionately as the city’s sole professional football club is supported. Even the club’s choice of name provides telling evidence of how the city’s distinctive regional brand of martial patriotism, forged during the Suez invasion and later wars with Israel, is concretely rooted in and expressed through the tribal loyalties which football brings out. Most sporting clubs name themselves after the city (or district) in which they are based: but rather than follow convention and call itself simply ‘the Port Said Sporting Club’, the chosen title is instead  Nadi al-Masri (‘the Egyptian Sporting Club’ – a deliberate mirroring of al-Ahly’s similarly unconventional choice of name, which translates as ‘the National Sporting Club’).

Increasing match violence has been a recent development within the football landscape of Egypt, albeit one which was regularly downplayed by the Mubarak regime’s tightly controlled media. An authoritarian regime which had lost its mass appeal felt it could find in football a ready-made vehicle for mass-mobilisation and popular support. The official Mubarak narrative identified football as a front for national unity (implicitly under, and in support of, the regime), as seen for example in the 2009 movie Wahed-Sifr (One-Nil). Persistent reports of match violence (including pelting opposing players and supporters with stones, or smashing the windows and in some cases even setting fire to their buses) were routinely suppressed. All that were permitted were reports of ‘occasional instances’, most notably when the Egypt’s national football team was presented as the innocent sporting victim of brutal assaults by foreigners during or after the away legs of international fixtures. This fitted with the two themes which characterised the Mubarak regime’s official narrative of football: its undisputed claim to patriotism, inextricably intertwined with a pro-regime stance.

Football supporters have, in fact, long served ceremonial purposes in the politics of modern Egypt. The first clubs to be formed were social sporting clubs, often named after the city or district in which they were established (the most famous being al-Ahly’s Cairo rivals Nadi al-Zamalek). After the overthrow of the monarchy Nasser’s state building project introduced into the football league additional teams drawn from the security institutions of the state (eg al-Geish from the Army, or al-Shurta from the police – the omission of the usual Nadi… preamble reflecting their lack of any club context or heritage). After that, Sadat’s infitah (opening up) economic reforms saw the introduction of additional football teams from the new large private sector corporations (eg al-Muqawilun from the Arab Contractors company, or al-Guna from the Sawaris conglomerate). It has however only been the original social (gamahiriyya) football clubs which have commanded large and intensely loyal (often on a hereditary basis) competing fan bases. The Mubarak narrative of patriotic nationalism took note of this through the regime’s explicit bias towards al-Ahly, seeking both identification with the record of success of the club as national and African champions many times over (mirroring the National Democratic Party’s hegemony over Egyptian politics), and association through a deliberate pun on the club’s name (for although many of its players are drawn from the ‘National Sporting Club’ al-Ahly, Egypt’s national football team is, of course, a completely distinct entity).  With the intensification of state patronage came the increased involvement in clubs of the new Mubarak-biznis elites including nouveau riche mercantilist business-men, media proprietors and operators, and also ex-football players on the make, all in pursuit of the vast profits to be made through manipulating the modern commercialised game. Even TV’s increasingly visible and vocal religious pundits could be seen climbing on the bandwagon, issuing their own sporting fatwas on issues such as whether the operation of the transfer market (including the distress sale of players by politically underprivileged, and therefore near-bankrupt clubs, to better connected and more financially successful clubs) is tantamount to ‘the slavery of the jahiliyya (pre-Islamic social order)’.   

The increasing politicisation-cum-commercialistion of football, and the parallel rise in corruption within the national league, has been mirrored by increasing levels of violence between fans of rival teams. Most visible was the emergence, beginning around 2007, of ‘extreme’ supporters’ groups, such as the Ultras of al-Ahly (see the image below), the White Knights of al-Zamalek, or the Yellow Dragons of al-Ismailiyah – though the term al-altraz (with the same pronunciation in Arabic) has now been widely adopted both as a general term (regardless of which particular club’s ‘extreme’ faction is being referred to) and for specific clubs – including al-Masri, which too has its own ‘Ultras’.

Wall with graffito image

Al-Ahly Ultras graffito (Cairo). The incorporation of the ManUnited Red Devils’ pitchfork
follows the al-Ahly Ultras’ explicit adoption of the same group title.

Independent, self-funded, well-organised and self-defined in terms both of total allegiance and heightened ‘masculine strength and bravery’, each club’s altraz crowd into a dedicated section of their club’s terraces, from where they loudly shout chants, banter and abuse (often astonishingly foul-mouthed in nature) at the opposing supporters - and equally at the police, the security forces and the authorities. Needless to say, the heightened levels of macho violence and excitement often results in open brawls with the visiting club’s own ‘ultras’, or with the riot police on duty.

Graffitied wall with image of molotov cocktail-holding ultra and '25th January'.

Al-Masri Ultras graffito (Port Said, 2011)

A distinctive feature of the revolution of January 2011 was the way in which the altraz from different clubs, which had previously always been bitter rivals, united in Tahrir Square to deploy their fabled masculine bravery and courage in defence of the protesting crowds under attack by the Mubarak regime’s police and hired thugs (see the graffito above, which shows the explicit support for the Revolution of al-Masri’s Ultras). As Marwan Bishara vividly puts it:

“The coordination between red-shirted Al-Ahli and white-shirted Zamalek fans against the regime underlined the popular nature of the Egyptian revolution. Psychologically, its effect was greater than the co-ordination between say Islamists and nationalists, or leftists and liberals. Remember, these passionate and vociferous fans are blindly tribal and loyal, they can whistle, scream, shout and confront police like no other section of society … The soccer fans gave the protest movement its oomph, just as the revolution provided the fans with venues to channel their social frustration. In the process soccer was made sacred by the revolution as many of its fans were injured or killed by the security forces”.

The commentator Dave Zirin quotes a respected journalist as saying:

“…Many Egyptians consider the ultras uncouth… But lots of Egyptian activists argue that in 2011 – and maybe today as well – the ultras have been the key protectors of the revolution, both physically and structurally, in the sense that they keep intense pressure on the state to listen to popular demands…"

and he provides a link to a Middle East blog which records how the al-Ahly Ultras recently taunted riot police with chants of:

Police are thugs...Police are thugs
I hear a mother of martyr crying "Junta dogs killed my son"
Down Down with Junta rule!
Down Down with Junta rule!

The violence at Port Said on 1 February can thus, in many senses, be interpreted as the regime’s forces obtaining bloody payback against their tormentors over the preceding year’s upheavals. But this is not the only story that is being told about the night’s horrific events. The official regime narrative focuses on foreign conspiracies and failures by local officials, as SCAF moved quickly to reconfirm its support for the traumatised al-Ahly team, and to sack top officials in Port Said and the football authorities. SCAF’s call for an official inquiry into football violence has however been rejected by most clubs as a sham and window-dressing to obscure the blame to be borne by the Mubarak regime’s structures which orchestrated, and continue to orchestrate, violence. The ultras of both al-Ahly and al-Masri are left bereft and betrayed, mourning their dead through moving Facebook tributes and on-line video clips. Non-ultra al-Masri fans are finding solace in explanations founded in Port Saidians’ well-established local sense of grievance that their city has consistently been victimised by the Mubarak Government – the main reason why the annual fixture between their home team and the team most closely identified with the regime (ie al-Ahly) has always been so tense and heated - culminating in what should instead have been a night of celebration after the triumphant win (as much over the oppressor State itself, as the club with which it identifies) which they have been waiting for since 1948. And the latest rumours I have picked up from friends in the city suggest an increasing willingness to point the finger at destitute migrants from neighbouring agricultural provinces, who cluster in the southern fringes of the city and have long been a source of resentment to native Port Saidians.

These many competing narratives show how different social actors hold on to stories whose explanatory frameworks of cause and effect support their different interests and vantage points. They show the extent to which football and the game of politics have become enmeshed, even as they suggest that the true story behind the night of football carnage will never be told, nor the real culprits be brought to justice.

 

About the author

Leila Zaki Chakravarti is a Research Fellow at the SOAS Centre for Gender Studies, London University. She is currently publishing a monograph based on her PhD fieldwork exploring constructs of class, gender and religion within an export-orientated garment manufacturing factory in Port Said, Egypt. Her current research interests focus on constructs of masculinity within the workspaces of professional football.