Ultras Ahly: The memory of a massacre in Egypt

Ultras Ahly: The memory of a massacre in Egypt
Comment: Making concessions to protesting football fans shows President Sisi's weakness, writes Mohamed ElMeshad.
5 min read
09 Feb, 2016
Dozens of football fans were killed by police at a 2011 Port Said match [AFP]

A demonstration organised by Ultras Ahly, the Ahly Football Club supporters' group, has given the country pause for thought.

A group that was never intended to have what Asef Bayat would call "an institutional power of disruption" has once again proven that, in Egypt, the angst of the young and disenfranchised may be key to the unravelling of the rigid, regressive and antiquated status quo.

The painful memory of the Port Said massacre, four years ago, when 74 of the Ultras' brothers were barbarically slaughtered after a football match galvanised them again to action.

Like many displays of "people power", the anniversary proceedings will gnaw at the institutions of state and challenge what has become an oppressive environment for potentially antagonistic "causes".

Video: Diehard Egyptian football fans chant anti-government slogans 

The long arm of the security apparatus has succeeded in the past few years in instilling dread among those who vocalise dissent or refuse to blindly succumb to jingoism, glorification of the state and its security forces.

Journalists, political opponents, human rights activists and even independent artists are among those who have been targeted either by lengthy court sentences, police violence, threats, "accidental" arrests, travel bans or damaging smear campaigns.

As a result, thousands of Egyptian professionals are on alert, and many live cautiously. The lack of popular protests on the anniversary of the 25 January revolution is a clear example of this reticence to speak out.

It is against this backdrop that the Ultras - the highly organised football "firm" - held a rally, jam-packed with thousands of anxious youth on that grim anniversary last week.

It was Sisi himself who came out with the softest reaction to the Ultras demonstrations

And not only did they hold an open demonstration, they spent a significant amount of time directing their ire at the military and police authorities who were present -and according to the Ultras, responsible for the deaths, due to either being in the stadium, or in power.

At the time of the massacre, Egypt was "officially" under military rule, and the Ultras blame former military chief Mohamed Tantawi for the general poltical and social situation that led to the massacre.

They further claim police played a direct hand in the slaughter by bolting shut escape routes for young supporters - many were children - and not intervening to prevent the attacks, despite the heavy security presence on the day.

The protests included very loud chanting and vocal criticism of military leaders, contrary to the demands of the army elite running much of the country. President Sisi himself has spoken glowingly of Tantawi - and all but forbade public criticism of him.

Read more: Sisi 'reaches out' to anti-regime football fans 

Yet it was Sisi himself who came out with the softest reaction to the Ultras demonstrations. Calling into a nightly TV talk show, the president extended a peace offering to the Ultras, inviting them to talk and offering them a chance to participate in the investigations regarding the massacre. 

Bizarre as this may seem as a presidential tactic, calling into television talk shows appears to be the PR plan they have adopted

As bizarre as this may seem as a presidential tactic, calling into television talk shows appears to be the actual PR plan they have adopted.

For a president, this looks like a weak way to engage with the public. One week prior, he called into another political talk show, promising to help the studio guest with an issue he was complaining about on air.

It is worth remembering that Sisi had announced early in his presidency that he would address the population in a monthly television address. But his TV orations have only graced Egyptians' screens twice in more than a year.

Extending an olive branch to a group that has already been labelled by a local court as a terrorist organisation, such desperate media outreach indicates that the Egyptian regime may be on the defensive.

While dialogue and participation would be welcome in any context regarding popular demands, inviting the Ultras for discussions sends confusing messages - especially as many political activists with mobilisation capabilities, and others banned from travelling or leaving Egypt, continue to languish behind bars.

On the off-chance that this dialogue were to actually occur -an offer which the Ultras have reportedly already respectfully declined - it would paint the president in a much weaker light.

And now his supporters in the media and public life agree and seem to be adding their voices to the melee.

Read more: Egypt - the massacre at the stadium 

Sisi supporters flooded the TV channel's switchboards, criticising his phone-in effort, in a display inconsistent with the general sycophancy of Cairo's media. Some even outrightly claimed his call was tantamount to admitting defeat in his fight against football fans.

Public opinion does seem to be closing in on the president, but the potential influence of the Ultras should not be discounted. The group does not have a political mandate, which helps explain why the government is allowing it to exist, instead of crushing it, as it has frequently done with past dissenters. 

However, since the 25 January revolution, the involvement of different "Ultras" groups in popular causes has either tilted the balance, or at least been hugely influential. They are able to assemble in huge numbers and act in unison, though their end-game is not always strictly political.

It could have been an almost perfect situation for Sisi, an opportunity to show his credentials as a democratic president who engages with the general public as well as the youth.

His recent gestures have, however, tended to backfire, and it is fast becoming apparent that his political capital is running out - both among his supporters and the general public.

Of course, his other option is to allow the security apparatus to operate with even more impunity. We were given a glimpse of that on Friday morning, as police raided an Ultras march, arresting nearly 50 members.

As long as groups such as the Ultras exist, they will hold a kinetic energy that the government will not be able to contain, and will erupt in tandem with the rest of the population. They also continue to serve those in power as a weathervane to show in which direction popular dissent is moving.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He has worked exte
nsively in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.