Egypt’s football Ultras fight on in battle over stadiums

Egypt’s football Ultras fight on in battle over stadiums
In-depth: After Egypt qualified for the 2018 World Cup, parliamentarians have called on President Sisi to allow 'Ultras' football fans to attend matches and release those imprisoned, reports Jo Schietti.
7 min read
25 October, 2017
Egyptian security forces have tightened an ongoing crackdown on football fans [Getty]

While Egypt is still in euphoria over its qualification for the 2018 World Cup, the most dedicated football fans - Ultras - are facing an intensified crackdown from Egyptian security forces in a long-fought battle for access to stadiums.

After Egypt qualified for the World Cup in Russia, parliamentarians called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to allow the Ultras to attend matches - and release hundreds of them who are still languishing in prison.

No presidential pardon has followed.

Barred from stadiums for the much of the past six years, Ultras have been bearing the brunt of a growing security crackdown on social movements in Egypt since the military coup against President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

"There is much resistance from the interior ministry and security forces to the potential for stadiums to become venues for protests," said James M Dorsey, senior fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

Ultras, well experienced at organising large numbers of people facing police lines, were in the backbone of Egypt's 2011 uprising that ended the rule of dictator Hosni Mubarak. They went on to play a key role in the student movement that drove anti-government protests in the aftermath of Morsi's overthrow.

"Ultras fan groups have a history of clashes with security officers," explained Dorsey. "They are battle-hardened, anti-authoritarian fans claiming ownership of the stadium, willing to put up with a lot more than other protest groups can."

Dalia Abdel Hameed's MA thesis focused on Ultras movements in Egypt. "Who has the right to access stadiums is the central question," she told The New Arab. "The stadium is a very contested space, and the police wants to control it."

The crowd ban, valid for domestic rather than international matches, continues - though authorities have occasionally been temporarily lifting it to test the waters.

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It still unknown whether the ban will be fully lifted or not. Football games have often been a flashpoint for violence in Egypt. The infamous Port Said stadium massacre in 2012 saw left 74 fans dead after a match between al-Ahly and Masry clubs. Many allege security personnel were responsible.

The ban was re-imposed after that tragedy. In 2015, at least 20 fans were killed in a stampede outside Cairo's Air Defense Stadium, caused by the police's mishandling of the situation as supporters tried to push their way into the venue.

The clash came ahead of a game between Zamalek and ENPPI teams. It was one of the first premier league games open to the public since the ban on fans following Port Said. The government reinstated the ban afterwards.

Last month, two people were sentenced to life in prison and 12 others were jailed for between two and ten years for their part in the deadly stadium stampede in Cairo.

Tarek Awady, the attorney who represents Zamalek's Ultras White Knights (UWK), noted that the prosecutor-general blamed both the Muslim Brotherhood - outlawed as a "terrorist group" in 2013 - and the UWK for the tragedy, claiming the group instigated the violence as a way to "spread chaos".

It was a way to exempt the police from all responsibility, the lawyer added. 

"Since 2013, the state has been targeting all kinds of assemblies, especially youth gatherings, as authorities want to avoid another 25 January revolution," Awady said. "Local media would typically defame such fan groups, with the police capturing fans."

Abdel Hameed, the gender and women's rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), described how Ultras were organised until the 2011 revolution.

Divided according to urban neighbourhoods, or "sections", Ultras used to gather and hang out in cafes, spray graffiti, writing and recording their own songs and singing them in marches and on stadium bleachers.

"Capos" (or bosses) were always standing on the stadium's amplifiers, with their backs to the playing field, facing the fans, giving them constant instructions and leading the chants, said Hameed. A smaller inner group, the "secret group", was responsible for making decisions, and updating the section with news related to the whole group of Ultras.

Over the past few months, the Egyptian security apparatus has heightened its ongoing crackdown on Ultras UWK and Al-Ahly.

In September, security forces arrested 150 Al-Ahly fans (Ultras Ahlawy) at the Borg al-Arab stadium in Alexandria. This was the most recent in a string of arrests targeting members of Egypt's football fan associations.

Fans were arrested for wearing shirts bearing the number 74, a reference in remembrance of those killed during the 2012 Port Said violence.

Similar arrests of fans were made in July - also during matches at Borg al-Arab stadium, where most Egyptian teams play in Africa-wide competitions.

The state fears the ways in which Ultras organise; it is trying to contain or diminish whatever is left of these groups. They are still the second strongest organisation after the Muslim Brotherhood

Although local football games have not been attended by fans since the Port Said massacre and further violence at Cairo's Air Defense Stadium, the Confederation of African Football has put pressure on the Egyptian Football Association to allow them to attend games in the African Cup of Nations - which has led to increasing tensions and arrests in the past couple of years.

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"This escalation is part of the larger oppressive climate in today's Egypt, where there is zero tolerance of any type of organisation, and anyone can be targeted," said Hameed, the EIPR researcher. She hinted at the hundreds of fans still behind bars and several others referred to military courts.

In May 2015, a Cairo court banned all Ultras groups in Egypt - and their activities - and ordered security officials to seize their meeting locations and funds. The trouble is, Ultras have neither - since they do not belong to a formal organisation.

Awady, who has followed most Ultras-related legal cases, denied that the Ultras groups were categorised as "terrorist organisations" as Egyptian and foreign media reported. He called the court a decision a "political sentence".

While Ultras have often insisted they have nothing to do with politics, they are essentially political by nature given the challenge they pose to authority, and their fight for ownership of the stadium as a public space. That's before considering their well-known involvement in Egypt's unrest in 2011.

That said, Egyptian Ultras groups withdrew from the political scene after they realised that their engagement in the revolution had altered the collective identity of the groups, argued Mohamed Elgohari, assistant director of the Atlantic Council's Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Based on his findings, the revolution, with the involvement of many Ultras members, and the killings in Port Said, exposed the groups to political activism which affected the cohesiveness of their internal organisation - which had been centred on love and loyalty to the club.

This later led Ultras groups to focus on challenging the ban on allowing fans into stadiums.

With much negative rhetoric from the state and government-run media, Ultras are today largely perceived to be hardliners, confrontational - thus spoiling the image of Egypt's football, which is now relegated to a middle-class "non-threatening" audience.

After 2011 and the two tragic stadium events of 2012 and 2015, alongside the toppling of Morsi in 2013, football fans are still trying to continue their struggle despite the repressive state machine.

Besides demanding to attend matches to cheer on their teams, they hold commemorative events to mourn those fans who have died in football riots, and to remember those imprisoned.

"The state fears the ways in which Ultras organise; it is trying to contain or diminish whatever is left of these groups," Abdel Hameed pointed out. "They are still the second strongest organisation after the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It is fascinating that the more oppressive the regime gets, the more fearful it turns too."

According to Dorsey, also author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, in a country where "football evokes the same deep-seated emotions that religion does" young crowds in Egypt with little future prospect have no other options to vent social and economic pressures.

This year, Ultras groups appear to be reclaiming public space in the stands.

"Ultras have been around for over ten years. They are still organised and present," the UWK's lawyer said.

But whether the high spirits over Egypt's qualification for the World Cup could shape the atmosphere around the country's football clubs, and have an effect on bringing back fans to the stands remains doubtful amid such post-revolutionary tension with Egyptian authorities.