A tale of two cities: blood, football and politics in Egypt

As the two cities of Cairo and Port Said remain engulfed in the worst violence seen since the Revolution, the entwining in Egypt of ‘football and the game of politics’ could hardly be more complete. And the game, it would appear, has not even reached half-time, says Leila Zaki Chakravarti.   

Leila Zaki Chakravarti
11 February 2013
 man standing in middle with back to viewer, with Arabic script on both sides of him.


In the circus of confrontational politics that summons a succession of demonstrations to the streets of Cairo, the second anniversary of the fall of President Mubarak (on 25 January 2013) had always loomed large as the potential focus for some sort of defining theatrical spectacular. Yet there was something different about the marches which, in the days running up to the anniversary, convened on Tahrir Square from a number of Cairo neighbourhoods. The groups, numbering in their thousands, were remarkable for their homogeneity, organisation and purpose. All were young males, some bare-chested but most kitted out in red football shirts or street-smart tops and hoodies. They marched with almost paramilitary precision, shouting well-drilled slogans in exaggeratedly gruff voices to the menacing beat of a loud bass drum, clapping their hands above their heads, every so often pausing in unison to pogo aggressively up and down. Well-produced banners proclaimed their demand for “Al-qissas aw Al-damm” (translated in many Western media reports as “Justice or Blood”) for the shuhuda (martyrs) whose portraits they carried aloft as vast icons.

Male figures with angels's wings. One wearing red El Ahly tee-shirt

Graffiti in Tahrir Square: commemorating El Ahly martyrs as angels. Photo: author's own.

These were the notorious Red Devil altraz (Ultras), ‘extreme’ fans of Cairo’s El Ahly Football Club  – intensely loyal to their club, virulently opposed both to rival clubs and the security forces alike, and renowned for their passionate, uncouth and aggressive behaviour within the stadium, and sometimes also outside it. In the critical days before Mubarak’s fall, it was the altraz of El Ahly and other football clubs who “gave the protest movement its oomph”, as the red shirted altraz of El Ahly joined forces with their white-shirted counterparts from arch-rivals Zamalek to defend the Tahrir Square demonstrators from attacks by the regime’s security forces and hired thugs. But by now such revolutionary harmony was but a distant memory, as the blood the Red Devils were threatening to spill was that of the altraz of another football club, Al Masry of Port Said. In February 2012, some 72 travelling Ahly supporters lost their lives during a match in Port Said, either under attack or fleeing from rampaging Masry supporters, or hoodlums masquerading as such. It was in anticipation of the verdict of the apprehended Masry supporters that was to be delivered on 26th January – without any apparent consideration that this would coincide with the second anniversary of Mubarak’s fall on Feb. 25th - that the Ahly altraz were staging their well-planned and drilled marches to Tahrir Square.

The choice of language for the demands of El Ahly altraz is revealing, rapidly cohering around a focus on two words in particular, namely shuhuda and al-qissas. The former is the plural form of shahid (martyr), a term deeply engrained in Islamic history and theology, and with a ready secular resonance deriving from its more recent use to venerate Egyptians who have died in struggles against colonialism, Israel and, more recently, anti-Mubarak (and now anti-Morsi) protests. So far so unexceptional. But the selection of, and repeated emphasis given to, the term al-qissas is both unusual and revealing, something which I have not seen noted in Western media reports. If all they were demanding was ‘just legal punishment’ then they had the option of ‘aqaab (meaning a penalty as prescribed under the Penal Code). The word al-qissas, however, reaches back well beyond the introduction of modern frameworks of civil law. In Islamic jurisprudence it denotes the harshest possible punishment that can be imposed against a wrongdoer, and is by definition applicable only in cases involving the most heinous of offences against the moral and divine order. Its invocation immediately rules out any other form of restitution (including forgiveness - which is still considered an elevated form of clemency - or “blood money” compensation, which though offered by SCAF was immediately rejected by the Red Devils and, under their influence, the families of the deceased). It also carries the clear implication of absolving the aggrieved party of any responsibility for the crime which has been committed (even though a number of reports from the original match in Port Said had noted the provocative language and content of the taunts the visiting Red Devils had been hurling at their Green Eagle rivals). And by settling on al-damm (blood) as the other half of their chosen slogan of “Al-qissas aw (or else…) Al-damm", the Ahly altraz were also deliberately reaching yet deeper into the past, invoking even more atavistic, pre-Islamic notions of tribal vendettas and blood feuds. 

Silhouette figures over a red and white checked area with 'Ultras' written on it.

Graffiti on the walls of the El Ahly club: the Ultra force of the terraces. Photo: author's own

They were accordingly jubilant when on 26th January the Cairo court emerged from its closed proceedings to pronounce the death penalty on 21 of the Port Said accused (with verdicts on the remaining defendants to follow in March). A large crowd which had gathered outside the gates of the El Ahly Club (in front of a huge, officially sponsored, hoarding bearing the names and photographs of the “72 martyrs”) loudly shouted the praises of the self-same judges who previously had been derided as lackeys of the Mubarak regime. Similar joy was expressed in further street marches and demonstrations.

In Port Said, however, the reaction was very different. There not only the Green Eagles altraz of Al Masry, but also the vast proportion of the citizenry at large, had long been convinced that the perpetrators of the stadium violence were nothing to do with the club or city, but instead were external thugs and professional hit-men, hired by none other than the Police and/or the Army to exact revenge against the Ahly altraz for ‘vanquishing’ them in earlier street battles leading to the Mubarak regime’s downfall. This explanation identified a conspiracy of hidden alliances between economic interests, political power-grabbers and underworld figures (one which the Ahly altraz’ focus on al-qissas had completely obscured). None of these had been amongst the Masry supporters and other locals rounded up for trial and, now, sentenced to execution in what was widely seen as the latest of the many institutional injustices inflicted on Port Said by a Cairo regime that, whoever might be notionally in power at any one time, has long remained overtly hostile to the city.

 Ultras Masrawy, 25 January

Al Masry Ultras graffiti (Port Said, 2011)

The Green Eagles’ graffiti and social media (visibly more provincial and ‘plain and simple’ than the slick productions of the metropolitan Red Devils) focused on the slogan “Al-‘adl aw al-mawt”. This construction deliberately mirrors the “either…or else…” formulation of the Cairo club’s “Al-qissas aw Al-damm”, but is also highly revealing in its choice of two radically different concepts for the alternatives posed. Al-‘adl simply means justice, with all the connotations of fairness, even-handedness and de-emotionalised proportionality carried with the modern usage of the term. The contrast with the blood-curdling, atavistic resonances of al-qissas could not be more striking. Likewise al-mawt simply means ‘death’ – in this case clearly implied to be the slogan raisers’ own, as a sign of their undying commitment to the search for justice (whereas the “or else…” damm the Red Devils are threatening to spill is clearly that of their opponents, not their own).

This relatively measured formulation was, however, soon submerged in the war of words which broke out in the two clubs’ social media. Many of the Ahly altraz’ Twitter and Facebook comments make written use of the sort of harsh and coarse language deployed verbally on the terraces (“Congratulations on the forthcoming executions, you mother-f***rs…”), and also explicitly invoke ‘militant masculinity’ (most notably in their repeated taunt that the Green Eagles are from a balad mafihash rigalla – a ‘City Without Men’, whose altraz were too feeble to join the Cairo street battles against Mubarak’s forces). The Green Eagles’ defence of their masculine honour involves mirroring the language to which they are being subjected, and invoking the martial history of Port Said as the one Egyptian city which has suffered defending the nation against bombardment and invasion by former colonial powers and Israel, while pampered Cairenes remained unmolested  (“Which f****rs are you talking about, you sons-of-c***s?”.  Port Said men were on the front-line defending their territory with their blood, and standing on their own two feet during the Occupation, will a few f***d Ahlawi’s ever manage to do as much, you son-of-a-pimp?”).

Feelings soon escalated, as widespread rioting broke out in Port Said, and also Ismailia and Suez, its sister cities along the Canal, in which over 40 demonstrators were killed. At the same time, Cairo’s Tahrir Square and streets were once again engulfed in protests by demonstrators and violent responses by the security forces, though here the occasion was the second anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow, and the protests were against the President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood for hijacking and betraying the aspirations of the revolution, rather than about football per se. The Morsi Government has declared a State of Emergency and curfew in the three Canal Cities, and sent in the Army to restore civil order. The Port Said protestors have rapidly responded with jeers about how the Muslim Brotherhood have reneged on their earlier campaign promises never, ever to replicate the hated Mubarak regime’s oppressive tactics against its own people (without even sending a representative to the city, if only to attend the funerals of those killed in the riots). They have also pointed out how, yet again, how Port Said is being discriminated against in comparison to Cairo, leading to public calls for the city to secede from Egypt altogether. In deliberate defiance of the curfew, the Al Masry altraz have led thousands of Port Said citizens onto the night streets of the city, with the Army not only standing by, but also, according to social media reports, covertly agreeing to play a friendly football match against the Green Eagles. In Cairo a number of Red Devil altraz have reportedly exchanged their red El Ahly club shirts for black hoodies and balaclavas, appearing within the ranks of the newly mobilised Black Bloc anarchists operating under the (clearly derivative) slogan “Al-qissas  – though this time against the security forces who have killed protestors – or else…al-fawda (chaos)”. Levels of street violence have been ramped up even further – to the point where, at the time of writing, there are reports of petrol bombs being hurled into, and setting ablaze the grounds of the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis, an unheard of development in Egypt’s modern history.

So as the two cities of Cairo and Port Said remain engulfed in the worst violence seen since the Revolution, the entwining in Egypt of ‘football and the game of politics’ could hardly be more complete. And the game, it would appear, has not even reached half-time.   

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