North Africa, West Asia

Sports, politics, revolution: how a hardcore football fan club impacted Egyptian consciousness

This is the first in a four-part series that delves into the history of the Ultras and their impact on Egyptian society. Part One: Introducing Egypt's Ultras. عربي

Karim Zidan
26 September 2016
Nasser Nasser/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Nasser Nasser/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.A quick glance at the official Ultras Ahlawy Facebook page offers a harrowing reminder of the last five years in Egyptian history. Instead of a timeline dedicated to football fandom and hardcore support for the Al-Ahly club, poignant pictures of various youth crowd the screen, each with a similar caption – birthday wishes to members no longer among them.

A September 7 post read: Happy Birthday, martyr Khairy Fathy. Paradise awaits you, god willing.

Though less than a decade old, Egypt’s Ultras have long lost their innocence. The group were labeled heroes for their bravery during the Egyptian uprising in January 2011, when they represented disenfranchised youth struggling to survive and to have their voices heard.  

Many believed they represented the new generation of politically conscious Egyptians who would rebuild their beloved nation. They opposed the oppressive regimes that replaced Mubarak’s Pharaonic 30-year reign and suffered the consequences in the form of violent suppression and bloodcurdling massacre.

In the tempestuous years following the Arab Spring, the Ultras Ahlawy’s public image has transformed from that of a hero’s appeal to that of troublemakers, vandals, and supposed terrorists, helped along by Egypt’s new oppressive laws banning the Ultras existence as a collective.

The ruling to ban these groups came at the request of controversial Al Zamalek SC president Mortada Mansour, who alleged that members of the Ultras White Knights (a Zamalek faction separate from Ultras Ahlawy) attempted to murder him and barred him from entering his own club’s headquarters. 

The anti-establishment slogans, chants and songs that chorused through the stadiums between 2007-10 are no more. Instead, two massacres and targeted violence haunt the Ultras’ existence. 

Mohammed El Raai/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Mohammed El Raai/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.So why is the complete suppression of the Ultras important to the Egyptian government? How did the group become a polarizing entity within Egypt? And how did a football fan club dedicated to hardcore Al Ahly fandom become a symbol of revolution and political opposition?

Free expression through sports

During the three-decade reign of former president Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian citizens were limited in their opportunities to participate in the socio-political sphere. The state lacked the ambition, resources and necessary structures and institutions to harbour that form of discussion and debate. Those who wanted to express alternative opinions had no formal outlet to relieve their frustrations.

Naturally, this vacuum allowed for unorthodox entities to arise as an alternative form of protest and outward expression. For many, this came in the form of religious institutions or similar social structures. For others, football fandom became their preferred outlet. Interestingly, however, the rise of the Ultras Ahlawy also brought about a fresh wave of social and political activism.

Mohammed El Raai/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Mohammed El Raai/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Formed in 2005 as an online community, the Ultras Ahlawy (UA-07) group was created by disgruntled members of the Cairo-based Ahly Fans Club (AFC). They separated from the traditional fan club after growing concern over the Al-Ahly club board members’ influence over the association. Less than two years later, the now-infamous red devil pitchforks banner was featured for the first time in an April 13, 2007 match against ENPPI. It signaled the official start of Ultras fandom in Egypt. 

Egyptian football had never seen anything like it. Ultras Ahlawy members were remarkably well organized and strict in their stadium etiquette. They separated from the football associations that were funded by the Al Ahly club, which allowed them complete autonomy over their actions during matches.

They peppered the stadium with crimson flares, sang lengthy songs, and boasted about their newfound collective identity. They even carried 30 foot banners with inspirational slogans like “We Are Egypt.” 

Confronting authority

As expected, the Egyptian government began to probe Ultras members in an attempt to determine the inspiration behind the group and the nature of their relationship with state authority and control. State paranoia quickly morphed into police brutality, which brought about the start of a bloody relationship between Ultras members and the Egyptian police force.

In order to understand why the state would be interested in the affairs of a fan club, one need only look at how Egypt has handled group gatherings historically.

For decades, Egypt operated under the Emergency Law, which allowed for limitless censorship, extended police control, and prohibited unauthorized gatherings. While this was generally imposed to quash unwanted political activity, it was also used to monitor Egypt’s youth and determine whether they posed a threat to the regime. This strategy remained in place well into Mubarak’s reign and has returned in the post-revolution space.

From the Egyptian government’s perspective, the Ultras posed a potential threat to the government because of its passionate youth base with seemingly no radical agenda. Was this a political unit masquerading as a fan club? Was it a group of anarchist vandals looking for chaos? All those questions were enough for the government to raise concerns over the group's existence.

STR/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

STR/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.For the first few years following the group’s inception, the Ultras Ahlawy made very few political statements. Their concern was lack of visibility in the public sphere and the constant resistance from state actors like the police apparatus. They were subject to invasive handling in stadiums when security forces opted for a heavy-handed approach to maintaining control during matches. On occasion, tensions led to clashes between the Ultras and the police.

This inability to achieve their rightful autonomy under Mubarak’s oppressive regime helped shape the Ultras' combative approach and, eventually, their political message. Graffiti slogans were visible on street corners and stadium walls – what once began as outward displays of affection for the group and their football club became powerful statements of resistance and confrontation. 

“Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.”

It is important to note the major differences between the Ultras' political involvement prior to the 2011 Egyptian uprising and their influence during the 18 days of chaos that marked the start of the revolution until Mubarak’s downfall.

While various Ultras members did make political statements and were involved in clashes that were framed as politically charged, the incidents highlighted individual interests rather than the actions of a collectivized group. The Ultras did not back a single political entity. What united them, instead, was their brotherhood and sense of camaraderie.

It was only during the revolution that the Ultras shed their skin and put their experience of fighting the Egyptian police to more use.

Part two of this four-part series will delve into the Ultras’ transformation into revolutionaries and how they influenced the eventual outcome.

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