North Africa, West Asia

Football’s martyrs: how the Ultras become revolutionaries

The second in a four-part series that delves into the history of the Ultras and their impact on Egyptian society. عربي

Karim Zidan
11 November 2016
STR/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

STR/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Hussein Taha and Mohamed Makwa: names of the first members of the Ultras to become revolutionary martyrs, and the first to die for a political purpose. They passed away on 28 January 2011, on the 'Friday of Rage', a turning point of the Egyptian uprising.

Their death was not simply a tragedy, it was also a spark that kindled unity in their fragmented brotherhood – a single unwavering reason for Ultras to join the revolution in full force. 

They had lost two of their own.

Before 2011

Prior to January 25, 2011, the Ultras represented hardcore Egyptian football fan groups that confronted authority, opposed police control and the extreme censorship prevalent during the Mubarak regime. Determined to have their voices heard, young men gathered during football matches to chant slogans and erect infamous red devil pitchforks in the stands as symbolic opposition to the government and its vicious security forces.

Tension rose between football fanatics and the Egyptian government, occasionally spilling out around the stadium in the form of scrimmages and clashes. Shocked by their determination and exceptional organization, the government grew paranoid about the group’s existence and lashed out in more brutal ways. As a result, the Ultras cultivated a profound hatred for the Ministry of Interior and the security forces at the centre of their identity.

For nearly four years, the Ultras and the police clashed on Egyptian streets. Few would have guessed that the experience they gathered on those occasions would help them topple the regime years later.

The ‘Friday of Rage’

As Egyptians marched the streets towards Tahrir Square on January 28, the smell of tear gas polluted the air and disturbed the senses. Despite three days’ worth of ongoing protests and gradually increasing violence, that Friday saw the largest influx of civilian protesters yet. 

While each member acted on individual intent, their anti-authority nature gave them unity.

Internet and telecommunication networks had been shut down that morning in an attempt to cause confusion and hinder crowds approaching the square. As police forces clamped down on approaching Egyptians, handfuls of young men in red shirts encouraged the crowd to push ahead. “Just a little longer to Tahrir, don’t give up,” one called to a group of women frightened by the tear gas. Members of the Ultras moved with confidence and a sense of leadership garnered through years of experience. While each member acted on individual intent, their anti-authority nature gave them unity.

“The Ultras were on the frontlines because they knew how to handle the situation,” an anonymous Ultras member told Al-Jazeera. “However, they didn’t participate officially or directly. There is no evidence that the Ultras groups participated. But each member of the Ultras loves freedom. So, of course, they took to the streets.”

The Ultras pushed ahead despite the gun shots being fired at the people and the thousands who were injured en route to Tahrir Square. Some of the wounded clutched their eyes and screamed, the likely result of a rubber bullet aimed at their eyes by the police with malicious intent.

The self-dubbed ‘Friday of Rage’ quickly became a reality.

As the sun set over Cairo, protesters began to flood Tahrir Square for a prolonged sit-in. Overwhelmed by the ensuing crowd, police forces scattered and retreated – some by driving through crowds and over protesters. Military forces were deployed instead. They encircled the protesters, but refused to intervene in the uprising. As a result, president Hosni Mubarak delivered a speech and sacked Ahmed Nazif’s government, but it was too little, too late. 

Throughout the 18-day uprising in 2011, the presence of the Ultras was tremendous. When they were not guiding or encouraging anxious citizens on the streets, or resisting security forces outside the Ministry of Interior, they were singing songs, chanting slogans and dancing on Tahrir Square.

“The Ultras had one voice,” sports analyst Hassan El Mistikawy told Al Jazeera. “It is thrilling to see 5,000 young men marching in the streets, speaking with one voice. They energised people.”

They sang to energise crowds, but also to pay tribute to their fallen comrades and to remind themselves why they were risking their lives. Yet throughout their collective struggle, they remained individuals guided by a common goal and not by an official ideology. 

However, while the Ultras were able to withstand attacks like the ‘Battle of the Camels’ in Tahrir Square and witness Mubarak’s resignation days later on February 11, their troubles had only just begun. 

The devil’s frontline

In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power to govern Egypt until fair elections could be held. SCAF did not relinquish power until June 2012 when President Mohamed Morsi was sworn into office. While this was seen as promising by a fair percentage of the population, SCAF did not live up to its promises to remove Egypt’s oppressive emergency laws or to help with the civilian transfer of power.

Naturally, this resulted in Egyptians taking to the streets once more in opposition to SCAF’s stranglehold on the nation. This peaked following the Maspero Massacre in October 2011, where a group of mainly Coptic Christian civilians protesting the burning of a Church in Upper Egypt were confronted by army forces.

The clashes took a violent turn and over 20 protesters were slaughtered. SCAF absolved itself of all blame for the incident, instead broadcasting statements that the Copts were responsible for the clashes.

By November 18, 2012, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had returned to Tahrir Square to protest SCAF’s inability to govern, and to demand an immediate handover. The Ultras were among the voices heard that day, though they are largely remembered for their heroics the following day.

Presidential candidate at the time, Bothaina Kamel, was particularly vocal about the protection the Ultras offered her during protests. She later showed her solidarity with the group by participating in a rally for the victims of the Port Said massacre that saw 74 football fans die.  

As a response to the gradually increasing crowds in Tahrir Square, SCAF targeted civilians approaching from the neighbouring Mohamed Mahmoud Street, causing violent clashes to break out. Over 40 protestors died that day, including members of the Ultras, who took to the streets to protect peaceful protesters. One such member told his mother prior to his untimely death that he needed to protect the innocent from being attacked.

Unresponsive bodies were dragged to the side of the road and were piled on top of each other, a tally of death. Had the football fanatics not been perfectly capable of navigating the confusing streets surrounding Tahrir Square, more civilians would have likely died that night.

Five years after the disturbing scenes that took place on Mohamed Mahmoud street in November 2011, reporters continue to seek out parents of the Ultras martyrs who lost their lives that night at the hands of a violent regime. One in particular recalled her son returning home every night with swollen eyes and irritated skin, a result of tear gas. She asked him: ‘what is the point of all this?’

To which the martyr responded: ‘I do it for our country.’ 

Part three of this four-part series will look at the Ultras’ post-revolution troubles, including the Port Said massacre that brought Egyptian football to its knees.

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