Egyptian protester march to denounce the deadly clashes that occurred after a soccer match, in Cairo, Egypt, 2 February 2012. Thousands marched downtown Cairo towards the interior ministry to show their anger against the interior ministry following deadly clashes that erupted after a soccer match and left 71 people killed (photo: EPA, dpa)
Soccer Ultras and National Protest in Egypt

Demands for Civilian Rule

The tragedy of Port Said in which 74 people died has given protests against the influence of the military council new momentum. But soccer ultras and youth groups will only be able to exploit this if they are able to bridging their street tactics with an engagement in traditional politics. By James M. Dorsey

Egyptians are rendering their verdict on who is to blame for the deaths of 74 people in a soccer brawl in Port Said following a match in which the city's Al Masri SC defeated Cairo's crowned Al Ahly SC. For the first time in months, thousands have joined militant soccer fans – ultras –in violent anti-government protests.

Support for the ultras – well-organized, highly politicized, violence-prone soccer fans modelled on similar groups in Italy and Serbia – had waned in recent months in a protest-weary country that retains confidence in the military despite its brutality and political ineptness. Many Egyptians are frustrated with the lack of immediate economic benefit from last year's toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and yearn for a return to normalcy so that the country can return to economic growth.

The ultras characterize their organizations as non-political and thus don't have a political program. They demand however a return to civilian rule, the rooting out of corruption and nepotism, holding accountable ancien regime officials as well as those guilty of abuse of power post-Mubarak, a clean-up of Egyptian soccer and a more pro-Palestinian foreign policy.

"Saviours of the revolution"

The demonstrations targeting the Egyptian interior ministry in the wake of the Port Said killings contrast starkly with protests in November and December around Cairo's Tahrir Square when the ultras battled security forces largely on their own in clashes that left some 50 people dead and more than 1,000 wounded. Some commentators have argued that in protecting peaceful protestors from police and their henchmen the ultras were the "saviours of the revolution".

Al Ahly players in the stadium of Port Said (photo: EPA, dpa)
"The fact that soccer violence is usually initiated by supporters of the losing rather than the winning team (and the winner being a mouse like Al Masri defeating a giant like Al Ahly) may not be firm enough to stand up in court. With Egyptians taking to the streets, it doesn't have to"

​​The waning public support for the ultras' post-Mubarak contentious street politics aimed at forcing Egypt's military rulers to hand over control to civilians and return to their barracks highlighted their increasing isolation after Egyptians had opted for a return to electoral politics and the backroom political horse trading associated with it by voting in the country's first post-revolt parliamentary elections.

The military's strategy backfiring

Leaders of the street-battle hardened ultras, revered and celebrated for their fearlessness, years of confrontations in Egyptian stadiums with Mubarak's repressive security forces and their key role in fighting Mubarak loyalists during the 18 days of protests that forced the president to resign after 30 years in office, recognize that if the deaths in Port Said were intended to further isolate the militant soccer fan groups, circumstantial evidence that the incident was provoked is backfiring with the military: On the one hand it is cracking down on demonstrators and on the other hand unsuccessfully seeking to project itself as the protector of football supporters.

The evidence that includes Twitter warnings in advance of the match in Port Said; the presence in the stadium of a group of unknown, alleged Al Masri supporters armed with batons and knives; the locking of stadium entrances that usually were open so that people could not escape; and the fact that soccer violence is usually initiated by supporters of the losing rather than the winning team (and the winner being a mouse like Al Masri defeating a giant like Al Ahly) may not be firm enough to stand up in court. With Egyptians taking to the streets, it doesn't have to.

Soccer fans on Tahrir square on 9 September 2011 (photo: dpa)
"Saviours of the revolution": Egypt's soccer ultras played a key role in fighting Mubarak loyalists during the 18 days of protests that forced the president to resign after 30 years in office

​​A statement by the Muslim Brotherhood that an "invisible hand" had been involved in Port Said suggested that the group that won the first post-Mubarak parliamentary election was aligning itself with the Egyptian public's verdict and leveraging the incident in its effort to reduce the role of the military in the transition to democracy.

While it is unlikely that the Brotherhood at this point will join the protests, it has demonstrated in the past that its ability to mobilize people can make or break public manifestations.

Revolution, not reform

At the core of the ultras' defiance is the instinctive learning of the lessons of the failures of Arab revolutionaries in the 1970s and 1980s expressed by prominent Syrian poet Adonis and Marxist ideologue Yasin Al-Hafiz who called for "leaving no stone in society unturned" and who argued that change could only be effected if the old system was first totally uprooted and destroyed.

Since their inception in 2007, the ultras' struggle has been as much about their ability to stand up to the interior ministry. And now, in post-Mubarak Egypt, they no longer can be abused by security forces without some degree of recourse. And they no longer have to pay off each and every policeman to stay out of trouble.

The police's hands off approach

The police's tarnished image as enforcers of a brutal regime remains unchanged a year after Mubarak's downfall and, if anything, had been reinforced by the military's refusal to hold police officers accountable for their brutality despite pressure from the public as well as reform-minded security personnel.

photo: AP, dapd
"The greatest tragedy in Egypt's soccer history": Saad el-Katatni, a lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood and newly nominated Parliament Speaker, top center, and Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri in the parliament's emergency working session one day after the stadium killings

​​As a result, the reduced presence of security in the Port Said stadium doesn't come as a surprise. Amid rising crime rates, police were often absent from the streets and stadiums in the last year, being more concerned about avoiding clashes that would tarnish their image than in maintaining security and hoping that incidents would prove that they were needed to prevent the country from descending into chaos and anarchy.

The verdict about what happened in Port Said rendered by thousands of Egyptians who have joined the protests of the ultras goes no further than that the military and government is responsible. They differ on what that responsibility is with opinions ranging from negligence in maintaining security to asserting that the incident was planned and provoked rather than spontaneous.

Street tactics and traditional politics

At this point, determining exactly what the military is guilty of is less important than the fact that Port Said has given opposition to military efforts to shape Egypt's future in its own image in a bid to safeguard its perks and privileges a new lease on life.

It is a lease that ultras and youth groups, who together constituted the core of the revolt that toppled Mubarak, will only be able to exploit if they are able to maintain public support by bridging their street tactics with an engagement in traditional politics and the give-and-take that it involves.

James M. Dorsey

© 2012

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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