Ultras and the Military: Dangerous Games
By: James M. Dorsey
Published Friday, February 3, 2012
Egyptian hardcore football fans, known as ultras, took part in radical protest events during the revolution. But bloody football riots in Port Said that left dozens killed Wednesday suggest they now played into the hands of the ruling military by default or design.
Efforts by the Egyptian military and security forces to exploit Wednesday’s football violence in Port Said, in which 74 people were killed in the worst violence in the country’s football history, are threatening to back fire. There are mounting indications that authorities should have been aware of plans to disrupt the match between the city’s Al Masri SC and Cairo club Al Ahly SC.
A series of messages on Twitter in advance of the match between the two rivals, whose fans already clashed last June in Port Said, pointed to the possibility that there could be disruptions during the match. Also, analysis by football officials of Wednesday’s incident is sparking outrage among Egyptians who generally do not support the country’s militant, highly politicized, violence-prone football fans or “ultras.”
The security forces’ low-level presence in the Port Stadium was part of an effort in the past year by the unpopular police forces, widely seen as henchmen of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, to shy away from confrontations in a bid to shore up their image.
Clashes with the ultras – founded by professionals and students, who often were anarchists that modelled themselves on similar groups in Serbia and Italy – would have undermined the security forces efforts. The police also believed that such incidents would demonstrate that police are needed to prevent a breakdown of law and order.
Many Egyptians are convinced that in the case of Port Said, the actions of the police were backed by the country’s military rulers. The military may have seen an opportunity to further drive a wedge between militant groups, the most radical opponents of continued military rule.
A protest-weary public that still has confidence in the military despite its brutal crackdown on protesters, is frustrated by the lack of tangible economic benefits from the revolt. They want a return to normalcy so that Egypt can resume economic growth.
Whether that strategy will work could be put to the test on Friday when it will become clear what kind of response the ultras are getting to their calls for a protest march on the interior ministery. The sense that the police and the military failed to live up to their responsibilities in Port Said and that the violence was not spontaneous could work in the ultras’ favor.
“There was something planned. Our security knew about it. People were tweeting before the match,” said Diaa Salah, a member of the women’s committee of the Egyptian Football Federation (EFA). “I saw a tweet with my own eyes 13 to 14 hours before the match in which a Masri fan was telling Ahly supporters: ‘If you are coming to the match, write your will before you come,.” Salah resigned hours before the EFA board of Mubarak appointees was dismissed by the government late Thursday.
“The government is getting back at the ultras. They are saying: ‘You protest against us, you want democracy and freedom. Here is a taste of your democracy and freedom,” Salah added.
Ultras of Al Ahly, a club founded more than a century ago as a center of anti-British republican nationalism, together with supporters of their arch Cairo rival Al Zamalek, the club created by British colonial administrators and their Egyptian allies and monarchists, set their deep-seated hatred of one another aside in the past year to join forces first against Mubarak and then against the military.
The ultras played a key role in breaking the barrier of fear that had prevented Egyptians from protesting en masse against the government. They formed the outer defense line on Tahrir Square last year against the security forces and Mubarak loyalists. Ultras were in the lead when the offices of Mubarak’s hated State Security Service were stormed shortly after his departure. Also, they have been part of repeated clashes with security forces in the stadiums, the storming of the Israeli Embassy in September, and finally the vicious battles in November and December in streets near Tahrir Square in which more than 50 people were killed and more than a 1,000 were wounded. Those battles were in demand of the immediate return of the military to its barracks.
The ultras’ fearlessness, coupled with their record of years of hostility towards the police, increasingly drew in thousands to their ranks. Most of these people were disaffected, less educated, and often unemployed youth whose political thinking was less sharply defined and who bear a deep-seated grudge against the police for the violence and abuse they suffered in years of clashes in the stadiums. During the first African club championship in Cairo last April between Zamalek and Esperance Sportieve du Tunis, ultras stormed the pitch in the 90th minute destroying everything in their path. Leaders of the ultras admitted at the time that they were losing control to a charismatic young man with no education and no job.
In a clear indication that leaders of both the Ahly and Zamalek ultras were seeking to curb violence, Ultras White Knights (UWK), the Zamalek support group, in a statement on their Facebook page several days before the match in Port Said and in advance of an Al Ahly-Zamalek match that had been scheduled for February 8, called for their Al Ahly counterparts to agree on a truce. “We are asking for an end to the bloodshed and to reconcile and unite for the sake of Egypt,” the UWK said. Ultras Ahlawy replied with a smiley.
That call is now more relevant than ever. Whether they walked into a trap or initiated the Port Said violence, the ultras have dug themselves into a hole. This time round it will be a lot tougher to dig themselves out. They have played into the hands of the military and the police in dealing a lethal blow to contentious street politics as opposed to electoral politics and the horse trading associated with it.
Wednesday was a black day for those who believe that only continued protests will ensure Egypt’s transition to a democracy. It seems less likely that such actions will prevent remnants of the ancient regime and established opposition forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, from filling the political vacuum and structuring the country’s future in a way that serves their interests rather than one that guarantees the emergence of a full-fledged democracy.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.