Performing masculinity: the football ultras in post-revolutionary Egypt

The displays of masculine assertiveness by the football ultras in Egypt and their strongly gendered form of youth activism points to the need to look beyond clichés about unspecified notions of revolutionary youth. Initially opposed to state authorities, are the ultras refashioning themselves as new political players?

Crowd of men in mist with a large flag.  All hands raised in a salute. El Ahly altraz staging a march

The seemingly perpetual push-and-pull between different groups of protestors on Cairo’s increasingly violent streets was given a new twist with the re-appearance in early March, after a month’s absence, of the unmistakeable presence of the Red Devil altraz (“ultras” ie extreme fans) of the El Ahly football club. The altraz are intimidatingly well-organised in their vocal militancy -  marching under huge, professionally prepared banners; shouting slogans to the thudding beat of a deep bass drum; pausing in well-drilled unison to clap over their heads, or aggressively pogo up and down; and most recently obstructing traffic, blocking roads and even setting cars ablaze. Their renewed public disruption has had two effects – one intended, the other perhaps less so. The intended effect is to seek to influence the forthcoming decision on 9th March of the Cairo Court which has been hearing the charges against 52 defendants accused of complicity in a football riot and massacre of 72 visiting El Ahly supporters in February last year (21 of whom were sentenced to death in an initial verdict handed down by the court – after curiously secret proceedings – in January this year). The unintended effect, however, is to also draw attention to the noticeably low-key profile of the self-same altraz on the streets of the city in whose original Arab Spring revolution (the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011) they played a leading role. Why in January this year had they abruptly withdrawn from their distinctive street performances? And what was the significance of their sudden re-emergence, more violent than ever before? In order to explore these questions we need to look into the origins and emergence of the altraz as a force in Egyptian football and revolutionary politics.     

The El Ahly altraz articulate their founding myth as the coming together, in or around 2007, of a core of genuine fans, determined to redeem the proud reputation and heritage of their club (founded in 1907 as the National Sporting Club and active in the drive for Egypt’s independence and modernisation) from its comprehensive entanglement within the politics, commercialisation and corruption of late-Mubarak Egypt. As one long-standing Ahly stalwart put it to me:

“If you joined the terraces in the late 1990s or early 2000s, you could easily see that many of the ‘fans’ who turned up were not real supporters. They arrived with ta’miyya (deep-fried chickpea patty) sandwiches, as if on a picnic to the countryside. Some were hired claques for certain players, paid to shout their names whenever they touched the ball, regardless of how the match was played, or seeking to make money from the terraces in other ways. The altraz came to stamp out this climate, and revive the loyalty true fans have towards their club, their sense of belonging to its heritage, ideals, and principles – its long history, legendary figures, and all the silverware it has won, giving it a status which surpasses that of all other clubs in the league.” 

One of the most immediately striking features of the Ahly altraz is the extent to which their membership cuts across the deep-seated boundaries of privilege, affluence, education and class which have always characterised Cairene society, but which grew particularly acute under the neo-liberal economics and politics of late-Mubarak Egypt. The sakashin (a slang pluralisation of the English word ‘section’) into which they are organised, each under the control of its kabo (a similar play on the Mafia’s ‘capo’) bear the names of many of the city’s poorest and most traditional districts (such as Imbaba, Bab Zuweyla, Sayeeda Zaynab etc). Yet the snappy literacy of their slogans and chants, the graphic and technical quality of the vast banners produced for their spectacular displays, and the communications/IT-savvy strengths evident in their social media (the prime channels through which their high degree of organisation is orchestrated and maintained – sometimes in English and not just Arabic) also testify to the involvement of significant numbers of educated, Westernised – and by extension affluent – upper-middle class members within their ranks. There are also indications of a strong congruence between their occupational make-up and those groups which were most badly done by under late-Mubarak neo-liberalism, including unemployed youth, white collar workers in small retail enterprises, and higher education students.      

The main ingredient in the glue which binds these disparate, and otherwise rigorously segregated, socio-economic groups into a single, homogeneous unity is their shared embrace and cultivation of a highly gendered performance of a distinctive masculinity – young, assertive, urban and tough – manifested in highly co-ordinated militancy. New recruits must go through an initiation ritual which involves the taking of an oath and the acquisition of a nomme due guerre (usually ‘street-smart Westernised’ eg ‘Spicy’ or ‘Jimmy Hood’ are individual altraz from other clubs who have surfaced in public). Thereafter each new recruit to the ranks of the altraz is required to place active, militant brotherhood – “where manhood and men stand up for their principles”, as one Ultra put it on live television - above all else. The bonds of ‘militant masculine brotherhood’ are affirmed and reinforced through the group’s strict emphasis on unity and discipline, each member knowing his allotted place and role in whatever street or stadium action has been planned, and implementing it with aggression as well as meticulous discipline and timing. Sometimes this can be seen in highly-organised and co-ordinated street manifestations such as the drum-beat marching and pogoing described above – at other times, especially during match-day stadium spectaculars, the group ethos can be equally intimidating as the serried ranks of altraz, gathered in one section of the terraces with their huge banners and red flares, abruptly cease their organised chanting and clapping, and instead unleash a free-for-all ‘wall of sound’ torrent of abuse, often astonishingly foul-mouthed in nature, at their opponents or the riot police surrounding them.

Each member is also required to be wholly committed to ‘action and action alone’, understood in the sense of having nothing to do with effete practices involving words, explanations or negotiations, but instead focusing all his masculine energy and spirit into militant performances of overt bravery, courage and loyalty. At its most innocuous, this can involve cheer-leading the quieter (more ‘respectable’) sections of the stadium in club songs or Mexican waves. It can, however, easily escalate into more ‘heated’ forms of action such as the hurling of missiles (including on occasions plastic bags filled with urine) at the riot police. And it takes its most extreme form (short of open brawling) when one of them darts forward to snatch the scarf, t-shirt or other emblems of an opposing altra – a form of ritualised ‘violence as play’ known as yi’alim aleh (‘marking him’ – a slang term for the knife cut which a street kid makes on the face of a younger boy whom he has abused sexually). Each incident is, however, carefully monitored by kabo on both sides, and an open line of communication between them allows adversaries to check with one another the degree to which tensions have risen, so that where necessary they can pacify their hot-heads and prevent the violence from escalating out of control. In these ways this strongly gendered form of youth activism permits members from the bottom of the social hierarchy to gain acceptance and peer ‘respectability’ associated with masculine assertiveness.

Initially the response of the Al Ahly Football Club’s officials and legendary former players was to take a benign view, classifying the activities of the altraz as il-gumhur il-munazam (“organised spectatorship”), provided they did not trespass outside tolerated parameters of public participation. Some officials even expressed public admiration for the passion and artistic creativity going into the displays of vast, colourful banners, chanting, and shamarikh (red flares set off at climactic moments).

Black and red photo of men lit by a flare. Flag and flare held up. The altraz and their shamarikh (red flares set off at climactic moments)

The terrace performances of the altraz were applauded as visible expressions of the communal bonding which tribal football embodies, uniting fans irrespective of their whereabouts at the time of a match. I saw this for myself one day when talking to three young skilled silversmiths working in a small shop selling worry-beads and small silver trinkets, with a TV in the background showing re-runs of earlier league matches (Egypt’s league having been in a state of suspension since the Port Said massacre). Once they knew I was interested in football, they spoke freely of their love of the game – a passion nurtured playing in the streets of the neighbourhood in which they were growing up, before the adult reality of all-consuming working hours (which they see as unavoidable for making a living) put an end to their days of play. All are keen Al Ahly supporters, and though they themselves now no longer have the leisure time to attend matches regularly, they always make the effort to reserve seats at a café which has paid for a satellite dish required for seeing any of the club’s international matches. As Mustafa explains:

Altraz are certainly not baltagiyya (“hooligans”). Like all Ahlwai they are loyal – but they take their loyalty to another stage. To join them requires a full-time commitment. They bring ashkal hilwa (“eye-pleasing displays”) to the stadiums, and so much effort goes into the messages they put out. We regard ourselves as the intended recipients for these messages: they make us feel part of the Ahly family.”

Benign perspectives such as the above were, however, never part of the response to the altraz by the state institutions towards which they had always been loudly and unremittingly hostile (screaming abuse – often of a shockingly foul-mouthed nature, and hurling missiles – including on occasion bags of urine, at the serried ranks of armed riot-police surrounding them in their chosen areas of the terraces).

Line of police with the stadium crowd in the background. Riot police at an El Ahly match

Hostile to the ambiguous position which a self-financed, autonomous and well-disciplined sub-group occupies in a system of state-controlled and financed organisations, Egypt’s officially-sanctioned media pundits (whether former players or journalists) invariably disapproved of the altraz considered as baltagiyya (hooligans– the same word used for the regime’s hired thugs who had attacked protestors in Tahrir Square). Furthermore, by associating them with stereotypes of drug-pushers and other members of the criminal underworld, they contributed to the criminalisation of poverty which was a distinguishing feature of the late-Mubarak socio-political order. The altraz, in turn, responded by deliberately boycotting state media, and refusing all requests for interviews, participation in discussion panels - something which only added to their mystique.

All of these features of the altraz’ distinctive constructs of masculinity had been on vivid display in the “Qissas aww Damm” (“Retribution or Blood”) street demonstrations which they staged in January this year in the run-up to the initial decision of the Court trying the Port Said defendants. The severity of the initial verdict (which condemned 21 of the accused to death – causing outrage and rioting in Port Said in which scores of people have lost their lives) was seen by the Ahly altraz as cause for rejoicing, and loud and public praise of the legal institutions of the state. This abrupt reversal in their stance towards state authority, coupled with their subsequent withdrawal from the anti-Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood protests which have continued to convulse the streets of Cairo, has led some commentators to speculate that the Brotherhood may have infiltrated the altraz’ ranks. Evidence for this is said to be found in the way in which several star footballers who had been vocal in the altraz’ campaign have now, and quite publicly, made explicit their support for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. And further corroboration is claimed from a re-examination of how the altraz’ earlier slogan of “Qissas aww Damm” echoes the new Government’s deliberate choice and deployment of consciously Islamic language to define and limit the parameters of public debate.

Perhaps the crowning irony came with reports in the media that the Ahly altraz had been ‘holding talks’ with the Egyptian Football Association (an arm of the State which the altraz had previously refused to have anything to do with) to explore options for resuming regular matches in the country’s still-suspended League. Indeed, a “spokesman” (a function unthinkable under their previous ban on any media engagement) was quoted as saying that if the Ministry of the Interior sticks to its position that it no longer has the manpower to police matches, then the altraz will themselves be willing to discharge this function on the terraces. Is this offer to take on the role and function of those who had long been their most-hated adversaries a case of co-optation? Or is it a case of the altraz re-claiming aspects of their distinctively crafted masculinity relating to primordial notions of protection and defence of the tribe, in an attempt to re-occupy the terraces where they first found and forged their identity? The inter-twining in Egypt of football and the game of politics continues.    

 

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.