After the horrors of Port Said, the exact role of ultras in the downfall of Hosny Mubarak remains unclear
A taxi drove past fast, swerving erratically, along the main road by the west bank of the River Nile. Insane driving is not unique in Cairo, but what I saw hanging out the backseat window of this particular taxi was certainly unusual. On the right-hand side, one young man stretched out as far his waist, and held aloft the massive red and white flag of Egypt's most successful club — Ahly. The boastful tagline "Club of the Century" was displayed proudly under the club's crest.
On the other side another young daredevil, was almost sitting outside the open window of the speeding vehicle. He held high above his head the white and red flag of Ahly's big city foes — Zamalek. Fans normally sharply divided, sharing this early morning taxi.
Sadly what had inspired this moment of solidarity were events the night before, events which have seared themselves into a national Egyptian consciousness already reeling from a year of revolutionary turmoil. The deaths of more than 70 fans in the Port Said Stadium on Wednesday 1 February ranks as the worst tragedy in Egyptian football history, and takes its grim place among the most horrific nights in global football.
The exact facts of what occurred in Port Said are disputed and a government investigation has been launched. But some core details are clear.
The Cairo giants Al-Ahly brought a large travelling support to an away game against Al-Masry in Port Said. Some home "fans" were apparently allowed to enter the stadium carrying weapons. As the final whistle blew on a shock defeat for Ahly, hundreds of Masry fans spilled onto the pitch and attacked opposition players and supporters. Security forces did little or nothing to prevent this.
Outnumbered, the Ahly fans attempted to flee, but gates were shut. Fans reportedly died from stabbings and from being crushed. Violence is not unknown at Egyptian soccer games, but not on this scale.
Some Egyptians regard Port Said as the horrific consequences of lawless football hooliganism.
But in Cairo, that was most certainly not how many people view it.
The Ahly Ultras blame the police and even charge them with co-ordinating the assault. In the days after the tragedy they took to the streets and clashed with police near the Ministry of Interior in downtown Cairo. The accusation of police coordination was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and others in the days after the event. The Brotherhood accused elements in the police force as still loyal to the former dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The truth is difficult to ascertain — there were arrests and resignations in the days after — but almost the more important question is why so many Egyptians blame "forces against the revolution" for what happened in Port Said.
The answer to that is found in the heady revolutionary days of 2011.
A heavy cloud of tear gas hung over a Tahrir Square in revolt. Buckling under the pressure of thousands of protestors, the epicentre of the Egyptian revolution was unleashing a roar of resistance into the Cairo night. Two days previously, an attack by the security forces on Tahrir had begun a period of violence that left more than 40 people dead and hundreds injured. It was late November and what became known, to some, as the "second Egyptian revolution" was at its most intense.
The revolutionary youth who had made Tahrir their home chanted angry slogans against the Egyptian military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Following the collapse of the Hosni Mubarak regime in early 2011, the military had stepped in to lead what they called "the transition to civilian rule". From the beginning, many of the revolutionaries were wary of the military's true intentions and, as the months dragged on and no transition materialised, those suspicions turned to anger.
But that was not the half of it. The revolutionary youth who had participated in most of the fighting (and dying) that brought an end to decades of Mubarak rule looked on with increasing disbelief at the actions of SCAF — thousands of civilians brought before military tribunals, the extension of the 'Emergency Law' damned by Amnesty International as "the greatest erosion of human rights since the resignation of Hosny Mubarak", the jailing of opposition activists and the failure to prosecute members of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). The trial of Mubarak and his sons was slow and disregarded as a sham by some. In early October there was also the horrific massacre of protesting Coptic Christians (and Muslim allies) on the east bank of the Nile.
For those crowded around me in Tahrir Square, two things had now become clear — the revolution that began in early 2011 was unfinished and the military, far from being a friend of the movement, was now a counter-revolutionary force.
As the tight knots of protestors swayed, the political debates raged in rapid Arabic around me, the songs of the January 2011 revolution were being sung, the blasts of tear gas canisters and the incoherent rumblings of rioting could be heard from the nearby Muhammad Mahmoud Street. People crushed against one another as hastily created human corridors emerged to allow those injured on the front line to be rushed to field hospitals.
Against this backdrop of chaos and the sonic onslaught of revolution, one of my companions and I conducted a halting conversation about local football.
A fan of one of Cairo's "big two" clubs, he was hopeful that a couple of disappointing early season results for Zamalek did not necessarily mean their cross city nemesis — Ahly — would run away with the league. Despite the lack of space, I struggled to raise my arm above my waist. I pointed in the direction of the street battles raging a few hundred metres away in Muhammad Mahmoud Street.
"You know that many Ahly Ultras are supposed to have been very involved in the revolution in January?" I said, speaking louder so he could hear me over the incessant chorus of defiance around us. "They have been on the streets during this week as well. They're probably fighting up there now."
He swung his head around to face me.
"Not only them," he snapped back. "The Zamalek Ultras — the Ultra White Knights — have been in Tahrir as well. It's not only Ahly fans here fighting for the revolution."
It was clear that in the extraordinary year of the Arab Spring the sharp rivalry between both sets of fans extended beyond the pitch and terraces and into the debate over who had contributed most to the revolutionary vanguard.
Politics and sport often mix, but in the revolutionary Egypt of 2011 the delicate demarcation between the two worlds dissolved completely. Ultra fan groups released political statements, ministers commented on the actions of the politicised football supporters, long-standing managers and officials were slammed as cronies of the former regime and forced out, some professional footballers became revolutionaries and others sat the revolution out.
Egyptians have said to me that in 2011 one national obsession, football, had been replaced by a new one, politics and the revolution.
"Yes, the revolution meant that people did not just focus on football," said Esso, a Cairene working in advertising and a lifelong Ahly fan.
"But this was also because the league was stopped for some time because of the trouble on the streets.
"Before the revolution the most important thing for Egyptians was football, and it will return to being the most important thing again."
There was some truth to this. In the heady days after the January revolution, even the failure of the Egyptian national team to qualify for the African Cup of Nations was not as crushing to the national self esteem as it would normally have been. Indeed a minority of fans of the Pharaohs actually speculated online that this failure would help the revolutionary struggle, that Egyptians would not be distracted from the democratic push by the excitement of a major tournament.
For other football fans, the national side seemed to constitute a lingering image of the old regime. The national coach Hassan Shehata was blacklisted by revolutionaries as a supporter of Mubarak — his eventual departure mirroring for some the ousting of the old political guard.
But an intense and interchanging interest in both football and politics has a pre-history in Egypt. The country's most famous author and the first Arab winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naguib Mahfouz, understood this synergy. In the second volume of his monumental Cairo Trilogy, the young literary nationalist Kamal (based somewhat on Mahfouz himself) conducts one of his habitual political debates with his wealthy, conservative friend Hasan Salim.
Set almost a century ago, this was also a time of revolution fused with defiance against British rule. The Great War was not long over and the hopes for full Egyptian independence thrilled the minds of many young people. Kamal, a fan of Mukhtalat FC (the forerunner of the modern Zamalek club) and a loyal supporter of the nationalist leader Sa'd Zaghlul, attempts to ease the heated politicised nature of the proceedings by talking about football. He fails.
"The soccer season starts soon."
"Last season belonged to the Ahly team. They were unrivalled."
"The Mukhtalat team was defeated, but it's got some outstanding players."
Kamal sprang to the defence of Mukhtalat — much as he defended Sa'd Zaghlul — to block the attacks of Hasan Salim... The exchange between Kamal and Hasan heated up. The former attributed Mukhtalat's defeat to bad luck, the latter thought it showed the superiority of Ahly's new players. The controversy continued since neither of them would give in.
Kamal wondered why he always found himself on the other side from Hasan Salim, whether they were discussing the Wafd Party and the Liberals or the Mukhtalat team and Ahly.
Decades later, following the Egyptian military takeover in the 1952 revolution and under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat and finally Hosny Mubarak, football became a complex locus of resistance to — and more often, compromise with — power. The dialectical dance between politics and football continued, even in this restrictive world of repression. When political discussions and avenues for activism were shut down, debates about football in the coffee shops, taxis and kitchens of Cairo often acted as a subversive surrogate.
In this post-Mubarak era, it is not only the political legacy of the former regime that is debated by locals; it is also its alleged club allegiances.
I have spoken to Cairene taxi drivers who swear that the former regime was staunchly pro-Ahly and did everything in its power to keep the club as the most successful in Egypt. After not much more probing, the driver will reveal himself to be a Zamalek fan. Another driver will insist to me that Mubarak and his family was Zamalek to the core. Indeed, to a biological degree.
"If he is shot dead, he will bleed white and red. He will bleed Zamalek colours," the driver said laughing as he wove his car at high pace through the manic Cairo traffic, his red-and-white Ahly air freshener swinging wildly from the rear-view mirror.
Ahly and Zamalek are sporting phenomena in this country, garnering support from across Egypt. Fans of both clubs hail from the entire Middle East and Africa. The Cairo derby is arguably the biggest club game in Arab football and in the capital, even if you don't like football, you are either Ahly or Zamalek.
A Belgian friend and Ahly fan was in Cairo for a month; he had extended family in Egypt whom he was visiting. They were devout Coptic Christians and devout Ahly fans. When he met them they were more than a little shocked when he discussed his own atheistic and secular views of the world. I went to an Ahly game with him, the first he ever attended. After the final whistle I asked him if he would come to a Zamalek game with me. He smiled and made it clear that it wasn't an option. I got the impression that the Egyptian side of his family could just about tolerate his atheistic world view, but if he had gone to a Zamalek game, a full-blown crisis would ensue.
The struggle on the pitch is matched by a rivalry between the two sets of fans, particularly the Ultra groups. Yet in this extraordinary period for Egypt, the Ultra groups have established a ceasefire of sorts. Ahly and Zamalek fans have protested and fought alongside one another against the authorities during the revolutionary year. The role the Ultras have played on the streets has been much analysed in the Egyptian media. For some they are a legitimate section of the revolutionary upsurge, for others they are violent groups of thugs. Whatever one's views, in hindsight it is no surprise that the organised fan groups played a significant part in the street battles that took place during and after the January revolution.
Under the former regime, almost every potential point of organised resistance was either crushed or incorporated. The trade union movement, the religious leadership and the media were all compromised in the eyes of the revolutionary youth who took to the streets in early 2011. But the Ultras — who were highly organised, conducted regular meetings and consultation with members, decided on tactical plans, had a history of antagonism with the police and were often battle hardened — were largely independent.
Relations between the Ultra fans and Egyptian security forces have deteriorated rapidly since the January revolution. There have been violent incidents inside the grounds and clubs have been forced to play matches behind closed doors. The last league season was racked by delays because of the general uncertainty in the country and the current season has already been threatened by suspension.
Although participants in the revolution in January, the role the Ultras have played in street protests and battles has increased in recent months. Politically active Ultra fans were also involved in the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September. Emboldened by a new sense of liberation they were on the streets again during the violent disturbances in late November.
A cartoon in a local newspaper, reprinted in the Egyptian Gazette, showed a young man dressed in a football shirt, shorts and boots. In his bag he carried rocks and Molotov cocktails.
"Where are you going today son?" a worried mother asks.
"I'm going to play on Muhammad Mahmoud Street," he replies smiling.
The cartoon spoke to contrasting perceptions of the Ultras' involvement. To some, they are just an active part of the revolutionary youth movement, fighting against continued military rule and police brutality. To others, they have become a symbol of worrying lawlessness in Tahrir Square and across Egypt. SCAF and its supporters attempt to exploit the later image — believing the "silent majority" of Egyptians are concerned about a potential slide into anarchy. The Ultras and their actions are viewed as a part of this slide.
But it's not just on the streets that the Ultras have made their case: during the year they became increasingly demanding and politicised. Whether it's holding banners aloft at games calling on their players to accept wage caps to help struggling club finances, clashing with police over the banning of fireworks in stadiums or publishing a list of officials involved in football whom they've deemed cronies of the old regime and called on to resign, the power of organised fans is now an established part of the post revolutionary political landscape.
The official Ultra Facebook pages often post statements that focus on political issues as much as anything that happens on the pitch. In one statement the Zamalek Ultra White Knights called for resignations at the top of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA): "These people are remnants of the former regime. They will not determine our destiny. We suffered a lot from injustice and repression in the past, but we stood up to that with pride. We fought with all our might to maintain our principles and freedom. We thought justice and freedom would come after our revolution. We will continue in our defence of freedom even with our blood. Our war with the EFA will continue until we win and see the corrupt people in prison."
In the confusing world of shifting political allegiances, newly formed parties and constantly evolving alliances that marks post revolutionary Egypt, for a time the Ultras were a solidified rock, a rock that was often thrown at the authorities.
But it is important not to overstate the role organised fan groups have played in the Egyptian revolution. When the history is written of this extraordinary period, the Ultras will not be seen as the crucial agency of radical change. Rather it will be broader factors and movements — the wave of industrial disputes that have rocked Egypt since 2005, the inspiration taken from the Tunisian revolt in late 2010, inflation, unemployment, the growing hopelessness felt by those living under tyranny — that will be seen as the sources of the revolution.
One of the unique aspects of this revolution has been the apparent "leaderless" quality of it. There is no clear Che Guevara-type personality behind whom people have rallied, nor an organisation like the Jacobins or Bolsheviks who have emerged as the undisputed party of revolution. Although interesting, this poses headaches to news feature writers in particular, looking for a face to hook the narrative of the revolution upon. The Ultras have attracted interest because of their clear organisation. But in reality the young men who staffed their ranks are part of the broader revolutionary youth movement that represented the vanguard of the uprising. They have the same concerns as most other young people in the country — unemployment, the rising cost of living, the lack of freedom, corruption in authority and so on.
Over a year since it began, the one thing that unites most observers here is the feeling that the Egyptian revolution remains unfinished. The great democratic conversation begun in Tahrir Square in January 2011 continues despite setbacks. For now, politics and revolution dominate the conversation in Cairo. It will be some time before football regains its position as the undisputed dominant topic in the thousands of coffee shops across this city.
This article appeared on Episode Twenty Eight of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.