By the Blouin News World staff

Cops, autocrats, and Ultras: political soccer in Egypt

by in Middle East.

Egyptian al-Ahly football club ultras and protesters hold portrait of the victims the 2012 Port Said football match killings.

Egyptian al-Ahly football club ultras and protesters protest the 2012 Port Said football match killings.

The acronym “A.C.A.B.” — All Cops are Bastards — is spray-painted almost ubiquitously on the streets of every major city in Egypt. Usually found alongside soccer graffiti, the statement embodies the very visible revolutionary fervor unleashed in the country since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and its close association with activism by committed supporters of Egyptian soccer clubs — known as Ultras. The longstanding face-off between Ultras and police, and by extension the state security apparatus including the much-reviled Egyptian Interior Ministry, played a significant role in the Egyptian uprising that swept Mubarak from power and has since shaped the dynamic between the revolutionary protest movements, the state and, currently, the embattled government of Egypt’s first democratically elected ruler, Mohammed Morsi.

This weekend’s “soccer riots” — prompted by death sentences passed on 21 people involved in last year’s deadly soccer clashes in Port Said — are the most recent example of the volatile dynamic between Ultras and security forces as well as the indubitable political power of soccer fandom in Egypt.

Even before the revolution, soccer fandom has long been a potent site of political engagement for Egyptians. In a country where political parties, unions, and even large gatherings were fastidiously monitored and policed by the state, soccer matches were one of very few acceptable social arenas in which groups of people — typically young men — could gather and unify, always exuberantly and sometimes violently. State security forces still regularly targeted bands of fans, which the Mubarak-era media often referred to as “hooligans,” cementing the antagonistic dynamic that proved so consequential in the uprising.

But leaders including Mubarak — perhaps recognizing the power of soccer to inspire collective passion and fierce loyalty — were not above tapping into the fervor among fans and harnessing it for self-serving, nationalistic ends. During the aftermath of the World Cup qualifying match between the national teams of Egypt and Algeria in Khartoum in 2009 — which came at a time when dissent against Mubarak’s rule was reaching an all-time high — the regime capitalized on the widespread anger following Egypt defeat to rally the country behind him. State media hurried to the cause, inflaming passions further with dramatic reports of scores of injured Egyptian soccer fans while recruiting celebrities to sing patriotic songs about the Egyptian National team. Violent protests erupted across the country — with Algerian flags burned and its embassy closed off against rioters — culminating in a fraying of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Mubarak positioned himself (rhetorically) in the front lines of the fight, issuing a stern warning to Algeria in a televised address and drawing praise from many in Egypt while quieting internal dissent, if briefly.

Mubarak’s resurgence in popularity following the Egypt/Algeria fiasco did not last long. Many Ultras harbored lingering resentment towards the regime for manipulating public sentiment around the Algeria match and were only too happy to jump to the front lines once the uprising began in January 2011. While not specifically ideological, the Ultras’ deep enmity towards the police made them natural allies of the revolutionaries protesting the abuses of the security forces and the Ministry of the Interior. Because of their experience clashing with security forces, Ultras became crucial in the tactical planning of street protests and, most notably, in defending against armed attacks by government-sponsored thugs, as in the case of the “Battle of the Camels,” when men astride camels and horses came bounding into Tahrir Square to break up protests. Ultras of different club affiliations — from Egypt’s most popular team, Al Ahly, to their fellow Cairene rivals, Al Zamalek — set aside team divides for the most part, even briefly forming one umbrella organization: “Ultras Tahrir Square.”

Ultras remained politically galvanized, though less unified, following the fall of Mubarak. The role Ultras played during the revolution was not forgotten by the military-controlled transitional government that came into power after Mubarak’s ouster. The match between Cairo’s Al Ahly team and the Port Said-based Al Masry, which is typically heavily policed due to the longstanding rivalry between the teams, represented for many the old regime’s retribution for the participation of Ultras in the revolution. The match, which turned into one of Egypt’s worst soccer disasters with 74 people killed and over 1,000 injured, was at the very least an example of police negligence (police allegedly stood by as fans were attacked with knives) and, as many Egyptians believe, at most, part of a campaign to suppress and punish Ultras for their activism. Al Ahly’s Ultras (Ultras Ahlawy) in particular were heavily involved in the process of organizing the uprising and were thought to have been specifically targeted. If this indeed was the aim of the parties responsible for the attacks, they appear to have failed in that regard. Though soccer games have remained suspended in Egypt following the match, the protest activities of Ultras Ahlawy along with other teams’ ultras (particularly Al Zamalek’s Ultras, the White Knights) has remained highly active. From increasingly elaborate graffiti all over the country to vocal protests, Ultras have made themselves highly visible in Egypt. Divisions are still obvious, however. The tensions between Cairo and Port Said have remained, with many Port Said residents reluctant to even drive into Cairo for fear that their license plates will inspire vandalism or violence.

In anticipation of the reading of the verdict in the Port Said case this past weekend, Ultras Ahlawy were visibly present across Cairo, raising pressure on Morsi’s government to deliver a verdict that would condemn those allegedly responsible for the attack. Though the various soccer factions remain divided, their animosity for police has not abated and their protests have only intensified. The post-verdict violence in Port Said, while led by Al Masry’s Ultra supporters, was less directed at their rival Ultras than at state security services and the government, which many in Port Said feel has used their city as a scapegoat for the massacre.  A state of emergency has been declared in three provinces in Egypt, including in Port Said. Coinciding with protests against Morsi and his Islamist government on the second anniversary of the revolution, the wave of protests have been felt intensely throughout the country, with many pointing to the parallels between Morsi’s government and the Mubarak regime. As a new set of verdicts are due to be read in March, it does not seem like pressure from either side of Ultras will relent any time soon on Morsi’s government. As divided as the Ultras have been in recent months, their continuing focus on the police and the regime means that the Egyptian opposition may be the ultimate beneficiary of the current situation — if they can reconcile themselves to the violent methods favored by these politically-involved fans.