The football fans who helped topple Egypt’s regime
The Ultras Ahlawy spent years battling Egypt’s brutal police state. Years later, they would become revolutionaries.
Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état, where Egypt's military ousted Mohamed Morsi, the nation's first freely elected president, and paved the way for Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to ascend to the presidency. Egypt has since faced an unprecedented wave of human rights abuses and oppression. Even football—Egypt’s national sport and pastime—was not sparred.
This week’s newsletter reflects on the rise and fall of Egypt’s football revolutionaries—the unsung heroes of the Arab Spring.
During the three-decade reign of former president Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian citizens were limited in their opportunities to participate in the socio-political sphere. The State lacked the resources and the necessary structures and institutions to harbour that form of discussion and debate. Those who wanted to express alternative opinions had no formal outlet to relieve their frustrations.
Naturally, this vacuum allowed for unorthodox entities to rise as an alternative form of protest and outward expression. For many, this came in the form of religious institutions or similar social structures. For others, football fandom became their preferred outlet. One group in particular would become infamous: the Ultras Ahlawy.
Formed in 2005 as an online community, the Ultras Ahlawy (UA-07) group was created by disgruntled members of the Cairo-based Ahly Fans Club (AFC). They separated from the traditional fan club after growing concern over the Al-Ahly club board members’ influence over the association. Less than two years later, the now-infamous red devil pitchforks banner was featured for the first time in an April 13, 2007 match against ENPPI. It signaled the official start of Ultras fandom in Egypt.
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Egyptian football had never seen anything like it. Ultras Ahlawy members were remarkably well organized and strict in their stadium etiquette. They separated from the football associations that were funded by the Al Ahly club, which allowed them complete autonomy over their actions during matches.
They peppered the stadium with crimson flares, sang lengthy songs, and boasted about their newfound collective identity. They even carried 30 foot banners with inspirational slogans like “We Are Egypt.”
As expected, the Egyptian government began to probe Ultras members in an attempt to determine the essence of the group and the nature of their relationship with state authority and control. State paranoia quickly morphed into police brutality, which brought about the start of a bloody relationship between Ultras members and the Egyptian police force.
For decades, Egypt operated under the Emergency Law, which allowed for limitless censorship, extended police control, and prohibited unauthorized gatherings. While this was generally imposed to quash unwanted political activity, it was also used to monitor Egypt’s youth and determine whether they pose a threat to the regime. This strategy remained in place well into Mubarak’s reign and even in the post-revolution space.
From the Egyptian government’s perspective, the Ultras posed a potential threat to the government because of its passionate youth base with seemingly no radical agenda. Was this a political unit masquerading as a fan club? Was it a group of anarchist vandals looking for chaos? All those questions were enough for the government to raise concerns over the groups existence.
For the first few years following the group’s inception, the Ultras Ahlawy made very few political statements. Their concern was the lack of visibility in the public sphere and the constant resistance from state actors like the police apparatus. They were subject to invasive inceptions in stadiums and security forces opted for a heavy-handed approach to maintaining control during matches. On occasion, tensions led to clashes between the Ultras and the police.
This inability to achieve rightful autonomy under Mubarak’s oppressive regime helped shape the Ultras combative approach and, eventually, their political message. Graffiti slogans were visible on street corners and stadium walls – what once began as outward displays of affection for the group and their football club became powerful statements of resistance and confrontation.
“Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.”
Prior to January 25, 2011, the Ultras represented hardcore Egyptian football fan groups that confronted authority, opposed police control and the extreme censorship prevalent during the Mubarak regime. Determined to have their voices heard, young men gathered during football matches to chant slogans and erect infamous red devil pitchforks in the stands as symbolic opposition to the government and its vicious security forces.
Tension rose between football fanatics and the Egyptian government, which occasionally spilled out around the stadium in the form of scrimmages and clashes. Shocked by their determination and exceptional organization, the government grew paranoid about the group’s existence and lashed out in more brutal forms. As a result, the Ultras located a profound hatred for the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the security forces at the centre of their identity.
For nearly four years, the Ultras and the police clashed on Egyptian streets. Few would have guessed that the experience they gathered on those occasions would help them topple the regime years later.
The Friday of Rage
As Egyptians marched the streets towards Tahrir Square on January 28, the smell of tear gas polluted the air and disturbed the senses. Despite three days’ worth of ongoing protests and gradually increasing violence, that Friday saw the largest influx of civilian protesters yet.
Internet and telecommunication networks had been shut down that morning in an attempt to cause confusion and hinder crowds approaching the Square. As police forces clamped down on approaching Egyptians, handfuls of young men in red shirts encouraged the crowd to push ahead. “Just a little longer to Tahrir, don’t give up,” one called to a group of women frightened by the tear gas. The Ultras members moved with confidence and a sense of leadership garnered through years of experience. While each member acted on individual intent, their anti-authority nature gave them unity.
“The Ultras were on the frontlines because they knew how to handle the situation,” an anonymous Ultras member told Al-Jazeera. “However, they didn’t participate officially or directly. There is no evidence that the Ultras groups participated. But each member of the Ultras loves freedom. So, of course, they took to the streets.”
The Ultras pushed ahead despite gun shots being fired into the masses and thousand injured en route to Tahrir Square. Some of the wounded clutched their eyes and screamed, the likely result of a rubber bullet aimed at their eyes by the police with malicious intent.
The self-dubbed ‘Friday of Rage’ quickly became a reality.
As the sun set over Cairo, protesters began to flood Tahrir Square for a prolonged sit-in. Overwhelmed by the ensuing crowd, police forces scattered and retreated – some by driving through crowds and over protesters. Military forces were deployed instead. They encircled the protesters, but refused to intervene in the uprising. As a result, President Hosni Mubarak delivered a speech and sacked Ahmed Nazif’s government, but it was too little, too late.
Throughout the 18-day uprising in 2011, the Ultras’ presence was tremendous. When not guiding or encouraging anxious citizens on the streets or struggling against security forces outside the Ministry of Interior, they were singing songs, chanting slogans and dancing inside Tahrir Square. They sang to energise crowds, but also to pay tribute to their fallen comrades and to remind themselves why they were risking their lives. Yet throughout their collective struggle, they remained individuals guided by a common goal and not an official ideology.
“The Ultras had one voice,” sports analyst Hassan El Mistikawy told Al Jazeera. “It is thrilling to see 5,000 young men marching in the streets, speaking with one voice. They energised people.”
However, while the Ultras were able to withstand attacks like the Battle of the Camels in Tahrir Square to witness Mubarak’s resignation days later on February 11, their troubles had only just begun.
In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s resignation, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power to govern Egypt until fair elections could be held. They did not relinquish power until June 2012 when President Mohamed Morsi was sworn into office. While this was seen as promising by a fair percentage of the population, the SCAF did not live up to its promises to remove Egypt’s oppressive emergency laws or to help with the civilian transfer of power.
Naturally, this caused Egyptians to take to the streets once more in opposition to SCAF’s stranglehold of the nation. This peaked following the Maspero Massacre in October 2011, where a group of mainly Coptic Christian civilians protesting the burning of a Church in Upper Egypt were confronted by army forces. The clashes took a violent turn and over 20 protesters were slaughtered. SCAF absolved itself of all blame for the incident, instead broadcasting statements that the Copts were responsible for the clashes.
By November 18, 2012, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had returned to Tahrir Square to protest SCAF’s inability to govern, and to demand an immediate handover. The Ultras were amongst the voices heard that day, though they are largely remembered for their heroics the following day. Then presidential candidate, Bothaina Kamel, was particularly vocal about the protection the Ultras offered her during protests.
As a response to the gradually increasing crowds in Tahrir Square, SCAF targeted civilians approaching from the neighbouring Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which caused violent clashes to break out between the forces. Over 40 protestors died that day, including members of the Ultras, who took to the streets to protect peaceful protesters. One such member told his mother prior to his untimely death that he needed to protect the innocent from being attacked.
Unresponsive bodies were dragged to the side of the road and were piled on top of each other, a tally of death. Had the football fanatics not been perfectly capable of navigating the confusing streets surrounding Tahrir Square, more civilians would have likely died that night.
The Port Said Massacre
When the final whistle sounded, tragedy ensued in Port Said.
The attack came in waves. Swarms of unidentified men armed with knives, flares and rocks flooded the football pitch in pursuit of the Al Ahly team following their 3-1 loss to Al-Masry.
The first wave targeted the players, dressed in their infamous red and white attire, and chased them off the field and into the relative safety of the locker rooms.
The second wave of thugs focused on the Ultras fans. They encircled the infamous anti-authoritarian Ultras supporters, outnumbered and confused, and began the bloodiest massacre in Egyptian sports history.
For those who watched the events unfold live on television on February 1, 2012, the chaotic scene was difficult to decipher, and very few could have anticipated the extent of the bloody violence that occurred in the stands, the locker rooms, and the tunnels leading towards the exit.
Those who were able to fight their way to the tunnel were trampled as they attempted to exit the building – the gates had been sealed shut, enclosing the fighting from the outside world and ensuring the horrific fallout.
74 people were killed that day, including 72 Ultras supporters. 500 Egyptian citizens were wounded in the assault. Some were beaten to death with clubs and sticks; some were stabbed; others were trampled. The scene in the locker rooms hours later was as heart wrenching as it was traumatic.
Those who survived the attack watched as medics attempted to revive their friends, and cried and moaned in pain for those who would not wake up. One screamed for his brother, seemingly unaware of the crimson mask of blood pouring from his head.
The reckless passing of so much wasted youth angered the previously resilient Ultras, and began the slow decay of Egyptian football.
In the aftermath of the Port Said massacre, the Ultras emerged as an overt political force that campaigned for retribution and justice while patiently awaiting the courts to rule in their favor. 73 culprits were arrested and put on trial for their actions. However, their faith in the judicial system appeared to have been in vain.
Of the few police officers arrested, most were acquitted of all charges, while 21 hired thugs were sentenced to death. Several other thugs involved received life sentences, but most of the police force allegedly responsible and complicit in the attacks were either set free or never faced trial. Disillusioned, the Ultras decided to take matters into their own hands.
“Port Said was significant,” observes Ahmed Abdulla, an Egyptian professor of psychology, when asked about tragedy’s impact on the Ultras’ identity. “It’s rooted in people’s minds. It is in the Ultras conscious and subconscious. They even now have a saying, ‘Once a fan went to support his team and died.’”
The group began to pressure the authorities and demanded retrials. When they were ignored, Ultras members stormed the Football Federation and torched the Police Officer’s Club. They demanded that the Egyptian Football league be brought to a halt until the Port Said verdicts were read. They eventually got their way.
Despite being out for violent vengeance, the group still had some sympathizers. Many, including foreign media sources, believed the attack was not the culmination of Egyptian hooliganism (already uncommon between opposing teams) but a politically motivated attack on the well-organized Ultras Ahlawy supporters who had been instrumental during the 2011 uprising.
The football fans’ presence and exceptional influence during the revolution was undeniable, which caused many to believe that remnants of Mubarak’s regime had been settling the score. The massacre could also be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate them into never opposing future regimes.
During the Ultras’ quest for justice for their fallen brothers in mid-2012, Egypt was preparing to host its first free elections since the fall of president Mubarak. The Ultras, a symbol of anti-authoritarianism and youth politics, became bastions of hope for religious parties that attempted to gather support.
Of all civic organizations in Egypt at the time, the Ultras may have been the second largest after the Muslim Brotherhood. However, when Ultras members or factions campaigned for one party or another, it led to clear divisions in a once-united group. Political parties were able to hijack the Ultras’ longstanding fight with the old regime and bastardize their beliefs.
The Port Said Massacre was the tragically pivotal moment that transformed a football fan club of revolutionaries into a political entity, and when the Muslim Brotherhood emerged victorious, the Ultras’ struggle took a turn for the worse.
The Port Said massacre not only exacerbated Ultras participation in politics, but reinvigorated conservative campaigns against the Ultras and their supposed brand of football-violence. For many, the events that occurred that day were due to a lack of law and order and an impotent police force unable to complete their duty.
Hooliganism was seen as the cause by many religious and conservative members of society. Ironically, the harrowing events that occurred because of a complicit and apathetic police force sparked a call for police reform and Mubarak-era law enforcement brutality to quench violence.
Amid public opinion swaying against them and a newly-minted presidency unopposed to bringing about their downfall, the Ultras had been weakened beyond recognition. Clear divisions appeared among the groups, who began to voice different demands. Some called for revenge, others for police reform, while some demanded participation in politics. The fragmentation of the once-united revolutionaries was complete.
By 2013, the Ultras no longer had a clear set of ideals or even a football team to support. Police harassment increased and peaceful protests were quenched with decisive brutality. Those who once sympathized with the Ultras’ cause no longer preached their values or mouthed support.
Egyptians were fatigued with the revolution, and the Ultras were a constant reminder of their failings since January 25, 2011. In a matter of years, the Ultras went from heroes and revolutionaries to terrorists and troublemakers.
In May, 2015, the Cairo Court for Urgent Affairs issued a controversial verdict that effectively banned the activities of Ultras football fan groups, without exception. More stunning, however, was the court’s decision to declare them a “terrorist organization,” a label usually reserved for the most heinous of offenders by government standards. In a matter of minutes on a Saturday afternoon, all Ultras-related activities were henceforth criminalized.
The court ruling spread across Egypt and reverberated with the enraged youth appalled by the government’s open resentment for their dissent. A group instrumental in the revolutionary protests that ousted Pharaoh-like ruler Hosni Mubarak had officially been labelled as a terrorist threat. The effect was immediate: society, fatigued by a severely weakened economy, protests and revolutionary aftermath in general, shunned the football group.
A four-year legacy of heroism, dissension and martyrdom had come undone.
While the 2015 court ruling served as a pivotal moment in the Ultras shift in popularity, the group’s fall had already been triggered months prior. What appeared to be a sudden collapse can more accurately be described as a slow decay of ideas and unity. The Ultras earned their reputation as vandals and violent instigators through their increasing participation in ill-advised street altercations in the years following the Arab Spring.
The decision to label all Ultras groups indiscriminately as terrorists is one that is obviously favorable for the Egyptian government and incumbent military dictatorship. The Ultras, despite their splintered groups and fragmented unity post-Arab Spring, represented a significant anti-government force, one that had helped topple a 30-year-old regime. To end the Ultras’ legitimacy as a peaceful opposition group was to end an entire segment of the youth population’s sole opportunity to voice frustration and dissent.
Historically, the Egyptian government has feared opposition groups that they could not control or understand. During Mubarak’s regime, the Ultras were seen as an unknown entity with dangerous capabilities because of their united front, sheer numbers in youth, and consistent funding. For decades, unauthorized gatherings were banned under Martial Law. The government heavily monitored political activity and the country’s youth to determine potential unrest or rebellion. At the sight of Ultras groups at football matches, state paranoia morphed into police brutality.
Despite a revolution and two toppled regimes over a twelve-year period, the Egyptian government continues to operate with a strategy of intimidation and retaliatory paranoia similar to that of their ill-fated predecessors, doomed to forever repeat history.
The Ultras’ turbulent existence earned the group a complicated legacy. They began as a non-political entity of hardcore football fans looking for an outlet to express themselves. Constant clashes with the police morphed them into a symbol of defiance and opposition to oppressive government forces. At a time of heightened tension between Mubarak’s government and civil society in general, the Ultras were a cornerstone of the youth resistance. It was only during the 2011 uprising that the group began to influence Egypt’s political landscape.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the Ultras were celebrated as heroes and honored as martyrs. They earned a place in civil society and demanded that their voices be heard. And yet, in the years that followed that turning point in Egyptian history, the group has endured two massacres, countless deaths, endless protests and their eventual exile from Egyptian sports, politics and society.
Thus is the reward for sacrifice in Egyptian politics.
As history looks back on the incredible socio-political movement that emerged from passionate football fandom in Egypt, will it remember the disobedient hooligans who supposedly disturbed society, or will they remember the fans who died protecting their country and defending its future? Even the Ultras cannot answer that question. In the words of one of the group’s members, ‘[The Ultras] can promise only one thing: we will return to the street.’
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