This post aims to provide information and insight to everyone left puzzled by the latest football violence in Egypt and the obfuscating mainstream media coverage that followed. Two articles are especially relevant. The first is written by James Montague, author of When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, a book about football and politics in the Middle East. The second is by Dave Zirin, author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” and the documentary “Not Just a Game.” AlJazeera featured both articles in their opinion section.
Some quotes from James Montague’s article (Egypt’s politicised football hooligans)
It was 2007 and his newly formed group of young, literate and passionate fans of Africa’s most successful club numbered just a few thousand. They carried banners to the Cairo International Stadium and sung chants, modelling themselves on the ultras – organised semi-political but often violent groups of hardcore supporters – from Italian teams like AC Milan. Their opposition that day were their hated city rivals Zamalek. But Assad and his Ahlawy reserved their true hatred for a bigger foe. The regime.
“The two biggest political parties in Egypt,” Assad told me on the way to the ground, “are Ahly and Zamalek”.
For the ultras, the sad violence and the international embarrassment at the regime’s attempts to manipulate the match for its own political ends marked a watershed moment in Egyptian society. Little over a year later, Mubarak and his hated sons were gone thanks to the January revolution. And the ultras played their part in his downfall. For the first time, the ultra groups of Al Ahly and Zamalek joined forces and marched in their thousands on to Tahrir Square. With few groups in Egyptian society having any experience of resisting the police, the ultras found themselves on the front line in the now infamous “Battle of the Camels”.
“We are fighting them [the police] in every match. We know them,” Ahmed, a leader of Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights group, told me last April. “We know when they [the police] run, when we should make them run. We were teaching them [the protesters] how to throw bricks.”
“It’s the army and police['s] way to get back at the ultras for our stand against them in the revolution,” Assad said shortly after escaping the tragedy. Football played its part in helping to bring down a dictator. And it is now, in the aftermath of post-Revolution Egypt’s worst civil disturbance, shaking the ground on which the new regime treads.
Some quotes from Dave Zirin’s article (How a tragic football riot may have revived the Egyptian revolution)
There are no words for the horror that took place in Port Said, Egypt recently. A football match became a killing field, with at least 74 spectators dead, and as many as 1,000 injured. The visiting Al-Ahly team lost to Al-Masri, and what followed will stain the sport forever.
Al-Masri fans rushed the field, attacking the Al-Ahly cheering section after Al-Masri’s 3-1 upset victory. People were stabbed and beaten, but the majority of deaths took place because of asphyxiation, as Al-Ahly fans were crushed against locked stadium doors. It was so unspeakably traumatic that beloved Al-Ahly star Mohamed Aboutreika, who famously revealed a “Sympathise with Gaza” shirt during the 2008 Israel bombardment, immediately announced his retirement after the match. A distraught Aboutreika said, “This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances. I call for the league to be canceled. This is a horrible situation, and today can never be forgotten.”
This carnage, however, has produced profoundly unexpected results. The shock of Port Said hasn’t produced a political coma but instead acted as a defibrillator, bringing a revolutionary impatience back to life. Instead of starting a wave of concern that “lawlessness” was spreading in post-revolutionary Egypt, the anger and sadness seem to be reviving the revolution. The Western media immediately used the shock of the tragedy to call for a crackdown on the hyper-intense fan clubs, the “ultras”.
Every political sector has spoken out against the military police in Port Said. Abbas Mekhimar, head of the Parliament’s defense committee, said, “This is a complete crime. This is part of the scenario of fueling chaos against Egypt.” Diaa Salah of the Egyptian Football Federation was even more pointed, saying, “The government is getting back at the ultras. They are saying: ‘You protest against us, you want democracy and freedom. Here is a taste of your democracy and freedom.’”
The Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt were more blunt, saying, “The clumsily hatched plot, which could not conceal the shameless complicity of the police, who stood watching the slaughter and killing for hours did not even attempt to protect the victims, carries only one message to the revolutionaries: the revolution must continue… The ultras groups that joined the ranks of the revolution early on… are still proving every day that they are an integral part of our revolution. “
(See this blog post for video analysis inside the stadium that argues how authorities are to blame for Port Said.)
There have been continuous efforts to marginalise the ultras. Now they are, unbelievably, on the center stage of history. The ultras have done nothing less than propel the Egyptian Revolution back into the Egyptian streets.
AlJazeera’s video reports: