North Africa, West Asia

Crossing the rubicon: how Egypt’s government and public opinion reshaped the Ultras legacy

The final piece in a four-part series on football fandom in Egypt and how the fans are now labelled 'terrorists'. عربي

Karim Zidan
25 January 2017
Mohammed El Raai/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Mohammed El Raai/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In May, 2015, the Cairo Court for Urgent Affairs issued a controversial verdict that effectively banned the activities of Ultras football fan groups, without exception.

More stunning, however, was the court’s decision to declare them a “terrorist organization,” a label usually reserved for the most heinous of offenders by government standards. In a matter of minutes on a Saturday afternoon, all Ultras-related activities were henceforth criminalized.

The court ruling spread across Egypt and reverberated with the enraged youth appalled by the government’s open resentment for their dissent. A group instrumental in the revolutionary protests that ousted Pharaoh-like ruler Hosni Mubarak had officially been labelled as a terrorist threat.

The effect was immediate: society, fatigued by a severely weakened economy, protests and revolutionary aftermath in general, shunned the football group.

A four-year legacy of heroism, dissension and martyrdom had come undone.

Crossing the rubicon

While the 2015 court ruling served as a pivotal moment in the Ultras' shift in popularity, the group’s fall had already been triggered months prior. What appeared to be a sudden collapse can more accurately be described as a slow decay of ideas and unity.

The Ultras earned their reputation as vandals and violent instigators through their increasing participation in ill-advised street altercations in the years following the Arab Spring.

It is important to note that the term “Ultras” is applicable to several groups within Egypt and does not necessarily denote a single unified entity.

While the Ultras Ahlawy remain the most popular faction of the hardcore football fan group, much of the trouble that ensued over the past couple of years can be traced to the Ultras White Knights (UWK) that supported the Zamalek SC football club.

The schism within the Ultras was particularly evident when 19 people were killed outside the Cairo Football Stadium in clashes on February 8. Most of those who died suffocated when a crowd of football fans stampeded to get away from tear gas thrown by security forces. All of the dead were members of the UWK group.

The tragic event brought back harrowing memories of the 72 Ultras Ahlawy fans who died during the Port Said massacre in 2012. As a result, the Ultras White Knights Facebook page referred to the incident as a “massacre” caused by the security forces, and paid tribute to their fallen martyrs. Shortly thereafter, the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of the UWK leaders as part of the investigation.

"Huge numbers of Zamalek club fans came to Air Defense Stadium to attend the match ... and tried to storm the stadium gates by force, which prompted the troops to prevent them from continuing the assault," the interior ministry told Reuters.

Eventually, 16 Ultras, alleged to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were given prison sentences.

Naturally, the prosecution’s decision to persecute the Ultras leaders further aggravated the youth. Protests and attacks ensued, which promoted more criticism and resentment towards the group.

This eventually culminated when Al Zamalek SC president Mortada Mansour, a controversial figure and army supporter, alleged that members of the Ultras White Knights attempted to murder him and barred him from entering his own club’s headquarters.  It was Mansour’s request that the Ultras be officially labeled a terrorist organization. 

Ultras as ‘terrorists’

The decision to label all Ultras groups indiscriminately terrorists is one that is obviously favorable to the Egyptian government and incumbent military dictatorship.

The Ultras, despite their splintered groups and fragmented unity post-Arab Spring, represented a significant anti-government force, one that had helped topple a 30-year-old regime.

To end the Ultras’ legitimacy as a peaceful opposition group was to end an entire segment of the youth population’s sole opportunity to voice frustration and dissent.

Historically, the Egyptian government has feared opposition groups that they could not control or understand. During Mubarak’s regime, the Ultras were seen as an unknown entity with dangerous capabilities because of their united front, sheer numbers in youth, and consistent funding.

For decades, unauthorized gatherings were banned under Martial Law. The government heavily monitored political activity and the country’s youth to determine potential unrest or rebellion. At the sight of Ultras groups at football matches, state paranoia morphed into police brutality.

By 2016, the government’s crackdown on the formerly hailed revolutionaries had only heightened. In July, 20 Ultras “Green Eagle” members were arrested in Port Said after others heard them chant against the police and the state.

In October, 48 UWK members were arrested outside of the Alexandria train station ahead of a handball game. No reason was given for the arrests. Less than two weeks later, another 56 White Knights members were arrested on charges of possessing fabricated tickets for a match.

“They are being punished along with all other factions who took part in the revolution, whether activists, journalists, or civil society, but they have endured the most severe consequences, along with the Muslim Brotherhood as the two groups who have faced real massacres,” Dalia Abdel Hamid, a social researcher who has studied Ultras groups, said when attempting to explain the ongoing crackdown.

Despite a revolution and two toppled regimes over a six-year period, the Egyptian government continues to operate with a strategy of intimidation and retaliatory paranoia similar to that of their ill-fated predecessors, doomed to forever repeat history.

A complicated legacy

During a a speech at Cairo’s Opera House last January, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi declared 2016 the ‘Year of the Youth‘. The event was dedicated to the launch of the ‘Egyptian Knowledge Bank,’ an international digital library project aimed at educating Egyptian citizens.

The former military commander cited the importance of sports development for Egypt’s youth and deemed it essential to increased participation in international competitions. It was a speech that resonated with those who took it at face value.

For others, like the scores of Ultras fans banished from stadiums and from participation in society, the speech fell on deaf ears. Sisi made no mention of the troubled Egyptian football league or its legions of disgruntled supporters. His speech offered promises of sport complexes and state prestige through international participation, yet ignored the core problems afflicting the nation’s youth.

the heroes of January 25 had become the thugs of Sisi’s Egypt

Yet while the Ultras protested and continued to resist violent suppression, their supporters dwindled and their once defiant appeal was extinguished. As far as many were concerned, the heroes of January 25 had become the thugs of Sisi’s Egypt. 

The Ultras’ fall from grace can be traced back to several pivotal moments over the course of their decade-long existence. Their willingness to participate in non-peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the revolution is among the main reasons that accelerated their downfall. 

It allowed for key figures within politics and media, like Zamalek SC president Mortada Mansour, to lambast them for their supposed insolence and to eventually sway public opinion against the fan group.

By the time the 2015 court ruling that marked them as a terrorist group was announced, few came to the Ultras’ defence. Indeed, some even welcomed it, unaware of or unsympathetic to how it infringes on their basic human rights.

The Ultras’ turbulent existence earned the group a complicated legacy. They began as a non-political entity of hardcore football fans looking for an outlet to express themselves. Constant clashes with the police morphed them into a symbol of defiance and opposition to oppressive government forces.

At a time of heightened tension between Mubarak’s government and civil society in general, the Ultras were a cornerstone of the youth resistance. It was only during the 2011 uprising that the group began to influence Egypt’s political landscape.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the Ultras were celebrated as heroes and honored as martyrs. They earned a place in civil society and demanded that their voices be heard. And yet six years removed from that turning point in Egyptian history, the group has endured two massacres, countless deaths, endless protests and their eventual exile from Egyptian sports, politics and society. Thus is the reward for sacrifice in Egyptian politics.

As history looks back on the incredible socio-political movement that emerged from passionate football fandom in Egypt, will it remember the disobedient hooligans who supposedly disturbed society, or will they remember the fans who died protecting their country and defending its future?

Even the Ultras cannot answer that question. In the words of one of the group’s members,

‘[The Ultras] can promise only one thing: we will stay on the street.’

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