Egypt: The massacre at the stadium

Egypt: The massacre at the stadium
6 min read
12 February, 2015
Analysis: On Sunday, at least 22 football fans were killed at a stadium in Cairo. Again, the government were quick to blame 'ultras' for the deaths. Zamalek supporters say this was a plan to wipe out opponents of the regime.
Egyptian 'ultras' are generally seen as opponents of the regime [Flikr/Hossam el-Hamalawy].

On Sunday 8 February, Egypt witnessed another fooball disaster when around 22 fans of the Zamalek football team, many of them children, were killed outside a Cairo stadium. Egypt witnessed a similar massacre in 2012, when 70 supporters of al-Ahly were murdered at a game held in Port Said.

Then, "ultras" were blamed for the violence - die-hard football supporters who have been worrying the authorities since they emerged in Egypt in recent years. In the context of generalised repression, they are all the more unwelcome to authorities, as they are an organised, vocal and combative opposition force. 

Last Sunday's massacre started when Zamalek football supporters gathered outside the turnstiles of the Air Defence Stadium to watch the game against ENPPI. Police used brutal methods to disperse the crowd. At least 22 Zamalek supporters died of asphyxiation from tear gas or were crushed to death in the ensuing panic.

Echoing, as is often then case, government propaganda, as well as the line of Zamalek officials, much of the media was quick to blame a group of Zamalek "ultras" known as the White Knights (UWK), for the tragedy.

The official line is that ticketless Zamalek supporters tried to force their way into the stadium. The "ultras", meanwhile, accuse the police of setting up the biggest "ambush" in the history of Egypt, and kettling in supporters, resulting in their deaths.

They say police used a tactic of forcing thousands of football supporters through funnel-shaped barricades that had been erected for the game.

Police fired tear gas into the crowd, resulting in a panicked stampede. Zamalek supporters later accused the club's president, Mortada Mansour, of being responsible. Mansour is known for having close links with the Egyptian authorities.

The Zamalek president has made the dissolution of the club's "ultras" a personal mission. On Sunday, Mansour reportedly made a last-minute announcement that 10,000 people would be allowed into the stadium for the match for free, and this, the "ultras" say, is what caused the massacre.

In a country where matches have been closed to the public for three years, the arrival of thousands of supporters was both predictable and inevitable.

A precedent at Port Said

National football matches in Egypt have been played behind closed doors since 1 February 2012, when the last major stadium disaster occurred in Port Said.

On that day, in the final minutes of a match between Cairo-based club al-Ahly and Port Said, supporters of the home team attacked the stands of al-Ahly supporters. It resulted in the deaths of 72 visiting fans.

The "ultra" Ahlawy, as the al-Ahly fans are known, accused the police, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which had been in power since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, of orchestrating the massacre.

This, they say, was in revenge for the Ahlawy's well-known support for, and participation in, Egypt's 2011 revolution.

Understanding the motivations of the different actors at play in both stadium massacres means looking back to 2007, when the first "ultras" emerged in Egypt.

The first two ultra brigades were created by supporters of Egypt's two biggest clubs - and fierce rivals – al-Ahly's "ultras" and Zamalek's White Knights. Soon, they were replicating the success of hardcore fan groups in Europe and South America.

These were soon mimicked by supporters of other clubs who set up their own groups. Their ranks were filled primarily with young Egyptians and the trend was immediately seen as a threat by the state who tried to end it through a combination of fierce police repression and relentless media propaganda.

Mubarak's authoritarian regime was not inclined to tolerate the existence of these self-organised groups of young people promoting a culture of non-compliance. Nor could it tolerate the slogans chanted by supporters against corruption in modern football, and the police. "Ultras" repeatedly chanted in favour of freedom.

"Ultras" claimed their independence from and their rejection of all forms of authority - whether that was the club’s administration and "official" supporters groups, or the state's authority. 

     The 2011 revolution offered a short period of respite for the 'ultras'.

At the heart of the state's battle with the "ultras" was the regime's control over its young population, sport, and public spaces such as football stadiums.

The 2011 revolution offered a short period of respite for the "ultras", as the police deserted the stadiums and the streets.

However, this was short-lived and the security apparatus, more determined than ever after the success of the 2013 coup, attempted to restore their authority over areas of Egypt that had slipped out of its control. Chief among these was the youth of the "ultras".

Some Ahlawy were keen to tell us they were sure that they would have suffered the same fate had they decided to attend the previous day's match between al-Ahly and the Police Union, which was suspended.

However, unlike the White Knights, the experience at Port Said led many Ahlawy to show greater "restraint", to avoid more blood being spilt.

After Port Said, the group effectively voted that in the event another supporter were killed, the group would self-dissolve. This of course did not stop them from clashing repeatedly with the police. 

Wiping out the 'ultras'

Though they stand together in the face of this drama, many Ahlawy criticise the Zamalek ultras for taking to the streets and demonstrating against the government's "closed-stadium" policy in an aggressive manner. Over the past 18 months, these protests have led dozens of Zamalek supporters being killed in clashes with police.

Families mourn outside a Cairo morgue [Anadolu]

Determined to wipe out his "ultra" opponents, Mansour petitioned the government to add the White Knights to a list of banned "terrorist" organisations. A few months ago he reportedly told the White Knights: "I swear on my mother's life it'll be prison or death for you."

When Sunday's match was interrupted, Mansour insisted that the game continue. Although the season is now temporarily suspended, he was the first to call for it to begin again.

One difference that has emerged between the Port Said massacre and last Sunday's was that the families of the Zamalek supporters who were killed cannot count on the club's administration for justice.

Neither can they rely on the justice system, which has already had arrested around 20 leaders of the White Knights. They will likely go to trial in military courts - as the stadium belongs to the military.

The court's decision to charge those who were victims of the attack is reminiscent of the arrest of the vice-president of the Socialist Popular Allegiance Party following the death of Shimaa al-Sabagh, a party activist, during a peaceful protest to mark the 2011 Revolution. 

Shimaa al-Sabagh: An icon of the Arab revolutions - read Hamid Dabashi's commentary here

Trivialised violence

Another, more significant difference exists between the 2012 massacre and Sunday's. While it appeared that the whole of Egypt ground to a halt when hearing about the Port Said massacre, on Sunday the country continued as normal.

Only one player, Omar Gaber, refused to play the rest of the game. He left the pitch and was subsequently suspended.

As the numbers of dead were announced, cafés stayed tuned into sports channels so customers could watch the rest of the match.

The following day, the German University in Cairo was one of only a few universities to hold protests in homage to those killed. Young people in universities, like those in the stadiums, have been hit hard by the government's repression.

From the trivialisation of violence, to the absence of justice, and the militarisation of public space, the issue of the "ultras" reveals once again the tensions and problems between the Egyptian State and society.

The fact that the authorities and its agents repeatedly employ violence against opponents feeds into an entrenched sense of frustration among youth. It seems to be inevitable that violence will create more violence.

It won't be long before many more Egyptians start believing that the state has completely lost its right to a monopoly of "legitimate" violence.

This is an edited translation originally published by our partners, Orient XXI.