By James M. Dorsey
Militant supporters of crowned Cairo soccer club Al Ahly SC have vowed to defy an Egyptian Football Association (EFA) ban on their attendance of a forthcoming Premier League match as part of their post-Mubarak battle to defeat remnants of the former regime and force an end to corruption.
In a statement on their Facebook page that has some 255,000 followers, Ultras Ahlawy said its decision to attend Ahly’s match against Ismaily SC said there defiance of the ban imposed by the EFA because of their disruption and clashes with security forces in recent games was intended to deliver a message to “all remnants of the ousted regime” that they would not obey their “manipulated regime.”
In their statement, the ultras said: “The issue is bigger than football. We want to settle the score with remnants of the former regime, under the leadership of Samir Zaher, and their oppression of Egyptian youth.”
The militant, highly-politicized, violence prone fan group played alongside their arch rivals, Ultras White Knights (UWK), supporters of Zamalek SC a key role in the toppling early this year of President Hosni Mubarak and the anti-military protests since. The ultras of both teams constituted the front lines in violent clashes with security forces and Mubarak loyalists during the protests in January and February as well as last month’s demonstrations demanding an end to military rule.
“It’s obvious that this association (the EFA), which is controlled by remnants of the former regime, is biased in applying the regulations. There is no reason to punish the spectators. We didn’t ruin any stadiums or riot against anybody,” Ultras Ahlawy said in their Facebook statement.
“We’ll say it again: We, Ultras Ahlawy, will attend the match because the punishment is illegal – and we call on all Ahly supporters to come too. We’re going to attend in order to support our beloved team, not to riot. So we ask officials of the corrupt regime to revise their decision. All they do is work for their personal interests and steal the clubs’ money,” the Ultras said.
The EFA, whose president Samir Zaher and board are Mubarak-era appointees has vowed to put an end to the ultras’ support tactics which involve fireworks, flares, smoke guns and chanting including denunciations of the security forces and remnants of the Mubarak regime in foul language. The group has imposed penalties on both Al Ahly and Zamalek for actions of their supporters.
The ban on Al Ahly was imposed after clashes between Ultras Ahlawy and security forces in September in Cairo Stadium that left 130 people injured, including 45 police officers. The clashes were the stepping stone to clashes during a mass anti-government protest several days later in Tahrir Square in which ultras stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo forcing the evacuation of Israeli diplomatic personnel from Egypt.
Like Ultras Ahlawy, Zamalek’s UWK have also vowed to defy the EFA ban. Zamalek supporters violated the crowd ban in their team's match several weeks ago against Ittihad El-Shorta by invading the Cairo Stadium and lighting fireworks. Clashes ensued between security forces and Zamalek supporters, with dozens arrested and some treated harshly by the police according to video footage published online.
The battle lines have hardened with 14 ultras charged in two separate cases in military courts with transgressions related to the protests.
“These people are remnants of the former regime. They will not determine our destiny,” UWK said at the time in a statement released on their Facebook page in reference to the EFA.
“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,” the UWK added.
Fuelled by a belief that they own the stadium as the only unconditional supporters of their team, the ultras steeled their militancy and garnered their street fighting experience in years of weekly battles with the police and rival fans. Much like hooligans in Britain whose attitudes were shaped by the decaying condition of stadiums, Egyptian ultras were driven by the Mubarak regime’s attempt to control their space by turning it into a virtual fortress ringed by black steel.
The struggle for control produced a complete breakdown, social decay in a microcosm. If the space was expendable, so was life. As a result, militant fans would confront the police each weekend with total abandonment. It was that abandonment that won them the respect of many Egyptians and have made them controversial in recent weeks with Egyptians divided over the question whether they should give the electoral process the benefit of the doubt or keep the pressure up with street protests to ensure a transition to real democracy.
Nonetheless, the joining of forces of arch rival ultras from Ahly and Zamalek, who for much of the past decade fought one another viciously early this year in the struggle to topple Mr. Mubarak as well as in last month’s battles around Tahrir Square serves as an indication of how deep-seated the demand is for an end to corruption and military rule.
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.