Rowdies with a Cause
How a bunch of soccer fans became the Muslim Brotherhood’s worst nightmare.
Soccer violence has played a surprisingly prominent role in Egypt’s 2011 revolution and the protests that have flared across the nation in recent days. Tightly organized bands of soccer fans known as the Ultras were instrumental in the effort to topple Hosni Mubarak, and more recently they’ve stood at the forefront of the wave of bloodletting that prompted President Morsy to declare a state of emergency after more than 30 people were killed in the soccer-related riots in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. Since the Port Said fiasco, protests have continued to swell to the point that there has been serious talk of removing Morsy from power and installing an interim unity government.
The Ultras seem to be everywhere in these latest demonstrations, much as they were in all the protests that have taken place in Egypt over the past two years: Tossing tear gas canisters back at riot police, clashing with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and storming the presidential palace. But the violence now erupting across a nation that once stood front and center in the Arab Spring revolutions begs the question: How did a nebulous group of football fans evolve into a political force to be reckoned with?
James Dorsey, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has studied Mideast soccer culture for years. "The big picture is that all Arab autocratic regimes felt the need to control public spaces," he says. "There were many forms of dissent, but they were largely suppressed except for the mosque and the soccer pitch. With these two institutions, the numbers were too big and the emotions they evoked were too strong."
According to Dorsey, the Ultras became the very first organization that dared to take on the much-despised Egyptian police force, making them irresistible to young men looking for a cause. Egypt’s economic woes have created a huge population of uneducated and unemployed youths searching for purpose. As the Ultras’ ranks swelled and their reputation grew, so did their hatred of the Egyptian security forces, whose brutal methods of repressing dissent were infamous. "Basically, for a period of four years prior to the overthrow of Mubarak, you had almost weekly clashes between the Ultras and security forces in the stadiums," he says. "They were fearless, they had nothing to lose, and they became battle-hardened."
Ahmed, one of the founding members of the Ultras Ahlawy, the Ultras’ Cairo branch, says that, after their education in violence at the stadiums, it was only a matter of time before the Ultras moved to the forefront of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. The soccer fans weren’t the only group targeted by the government, but they were one of the few with the organizational backbone to fight back. "So we started a group that was based on freedom, inside the stadiums and out. Our stance is that we never start violence, but if someone is violent toward us, we won’t remain silent. We knew we had to be a part of the revolution."
For their part, many activists say they’re grateful to have had the Ultras backing them during the 2011 uprising as well as in more recent protests. After suffering at the hands of the Egyptian police during the uprising, they seem to empathize with the Ultras’ hatred of the security forces. "I think many people have this impression that the revolution was peaceful, but it really wasn’t," says Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an Egyptian activist and correspondent for Democracy Now. "There was a lot of physical resistance that was necessary in order to overcome the security forces, and the Ultras were very important in that struggle."
Despite its symbiotic nature, the relationship between the Ultras and the activists is a complicated one, with jealousy and rivalry on both sides. "I know female activists who are very upset with them because some of them have made it clear that they don’t want women around after 8 PM at their sit-ins," says Abdel Kouddous. "There’s a lot of misogyny and that sort of thing."
However, Ahmed says that after the bloodshed that took place during the 2011 uprising, the Ultras assumed a protective stance towards other protesters, especially the women, who have become increasingly vulnerable to sexual violence. "If we see a helpless person in the streets getting beaten by the police, or by anyone else, we’re automatically there," he says. "We’ve been fighting this battle against the police for five years. We have experience in how to deal with them. Now, when there is violence anywhere, people immediately ask, ‘Where are the Ultras?"’
Not everyone in Egypt is as enthusiastic about the role the Ultras have assumed within the youth movement. In a January 26 statement, the Muslim Brotherhood made it clear that Morsy’s regime was extremely concerned by the Ultras’ tendency towards politicization, urging the media and political parties not to incite them to "subversion and the use of violence and thuggery." "Achievement of the objectives of the revolution is a responsibility we should all shoulder together," the statement read. "All Egyptians must condemn those violent criminals and hold them accountable in accordance with the provisions of the law. It certainly is most absurd that such individuals or groups should pretend they are claiming martyrs’ rights with yet more unlawful killings and bloodshed."
Ahmed insists that the Ultras are maintaining their distance from all too-direct involvement in politics, though he does accuse some activists of provoking the Ultras to violence for their own ends. "We have our free will," he says. "We do everything when we need to do it, not when someone needs us to do it. That’s why nobody can use us from the political side. A lot of people tried to use us and convince us to join political parties, but we still maintain that we are a football group and we’re not concerned with politics."
According to Dorsey, given their roots and the way they’ve evolved into such a powerful force in the protest movement, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Ultras as thugs or garden-variety soccer hooligans, the way the Muslim Brotherhood has. He says the reality of their journey from the stadiums to Tahrir Square is much less simple.
"I very deliberately don’t use the word ‘hooligan,’" he says. "If you’re a British football hooligan, you’re in an open, pluralistic, democratic society. You have a multitude of options to express your dissatisfaction. If you were in Egypt, violence was imposed on you. The regime was violent, by definition. There were no avenues of expression and the ones that did exist were violently repressed."
The problem with the Ultras, and the Egyptian protest movement in general, according to Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is that any government in Egypt would probably be the target of their rage. "It seems to me that the Ultras are, by now, very seasoned protesters and are able to bring a lot of attention to their demands and create a problem for the government that’s in power," he says. "It almost doesn’t matter who is in charge. A lot of the youth movement has grievances, and the government is incapable of alleviating those grievances quickly, because of the nature of the challenges. Not necessarily because Mohamed Morsy is incompetent, but because the Egyptian state isn’t strong or competent. It’s a weak state."
Although Ahmed acknowledges that choosing between Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government and the former military-dominated regime isn’t something he relishes, he rejects the idea that the Ultras are simply looking for an excuse to start trouble. "Just because there is no great alternative doesn’t mean that we have to accept another dictator," he says. "We’ve done that before, and we saw what happened. Not after we lost all those people and started a revolution. We weren’t fighting to end up back where we started."
Dorsey thinks the Ultras are a microcosm of Egypt’s larger struggles with implementing democracy in a former dictatorship. "As unified as the Ultras are in some ways, they’re also a very diverse group," he says. "And they’re grappling with what all the youth groups in Egypt are grappling with right now: How to make the transition from street to system. These guys know street politics. It’s the real politics that are the challenge at this point."
With no end in sight to the turmoil that has gripped Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster, it isn’t clear what role the Ultras will play in any future political solution that might take place. The next stage of Egypt’s political development — trying to create order out of chaos, transforming a weak, post-authoritarian state into a functioning democracy — is likely to require more subtlety than the anti-authoritarian instincts of Ahmed and his friends. Whatever the outcome, Ahmed is adamant that he’ll never stop fighting against the culture of official impunity, or allow his revolution to be hijacked by Islamists or members of Mubarak’s old regime. "Peace will never happen unless the people know how precious their blood is," he says emphatically. "Either we have justice, or you’ll see chaos."