Beirut–The Egypt of strongman Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi has taken another, and this time unique, step in trying to control dissident parts of the population: it has criminalized football fan clubs known as Ultras.
The Ultras, like counterparts in Europe, are rowdy devotees of their local teams and usually stock the end zones of stadiums, chant vociferously and jump up and down for the entire game. In Egypt, they also clash with police, whom they detest.
But this turbulence is only a pretext for declaring them illegal, via a ruling by the Cairo Court for Urgent Affairs, last weekend. The underlying threat to Sisi represented by the Ultras is their established role as dissident shock troops. They participated in the Tahrir Square mass demonstrations that helped bring down the government of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and subsequently battled successor governments that tried to suppress street protests. The Ultras especially hate the cops, and Egypt is back into full police-state mode.
Fans of al-Ahly, the venerable and most successful of Egypt’s football clubs, form the biggest and best organized group of Ultras. Cafes dedicated to the club are sprinkled throughout the capital. Games with their cross-town rivals Zamalek are major sporting events on the Egyptian calendar.
Both Ahly and Zamalek were heavy players in Tahrir Square. They were unafraid of clashing with riot police. On February 2, 2011, Ultras were key protecting the Tahrir throng from a camel-led charge into the square by Mubarak hirelings.
In one of the most egregious acts of police retaliation I’ve ever seen, a 2012 soccer game in Port Said ended when police permitted fans of the opposing team to assault the Ahly visitors in the other end zone. The assailants used clubs and knives to set upon the trapped Ahly fans. Exit doors from the stadium were inexplicably shut. At one point the lights went out in the stadium. Seventy-four Ahly fans died. Some were thrown off the upper stands of the stadium.
Eleven civilian assailants have received death penalties, although appeals are still pending and will take years.
The government has also confiscated the assets of retired Ahly star Mohammed Abutreika for alleged links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi overthrew Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s upopular president last year; Morsi was a Brotherhood leader. Abutraeika’s business partner was allegedly a Brotherhood member.
In an unusual display of contesting the official line, lots of players came out to support, who was one of the best of the past decade. He retired after the Port Said atrocity.
Sisi has effectively banned street protests and labor strikes. Ultras are one of the few visible, if unorthodox, dissident groups at large in the country. College students have also been difficult to tame–protests on campus were frequent since Sisi took power last summer. Given their rowdy behavior, demonizing the Ultras may be easy enough, but the students–traditionally considered Egypt’s Hope–may not be so easily assaulted.
A look behind the criminalization of Ultras, from Mada Masr.
Prosecutor probes al-Ahly Ultras for “terrorism.”
The Abutreika case.
Video of Port Said riot(in Arabic). Note black-clad police standing around.