Since its founding in 1907, Al Ahly S.C. has been known as ‘the people’s club,’ representing resistance against the many forms of colonialism that have long plagued the African continent. Initially the first sporting club to allow Egyptians to join, Al Ahly remains the most popular of Egyptian teams, wearing to this day the red kits that honour the pre-colonial Egyptian flag. It is no great surprise, then, that Al Ahly Ultras – officially founded by Mahmoud Ghandour in 2007 (who is reported to have died in Wednesday’s violent attacks) – were on the front lines of both the initial “#Jan25” uprising and the continuing movement intended to topple the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Egyptians inspired by Tunisia and over 30 years of corrupt governance have utilized every resistance tactic at their disposal, including the well-organized and nearly fearless ultras.
Ahlawy are not the only ultras to make up the first line of defense against police and the military–fans of the comparatively upper-class Cairene neighborhood Zamalek’s team, Al Ahly’s longtime rivals, have also defended the ongoing revolution with zeal. It is, in fact, the truce called by Zamalek after years of bitter rivalry with Ahly in the aftermath of the devastating Port Said riots this Wednesday that symbolizes much of the complexity surrounding what the international media has largely misidentified as a “football riot.”
What happened is still unclear, though this much is known: On Wednesday, after Al Masry beat Al Ahly 3-1, attackers armed with knives and clubs stormed the pitch. Whether the armed crowds were only Al Masry Ultras or not is still being debated–after all, why attack the spectators and team members of the losing squad? Several players – Egypt’s beloved philanthropist and supporter of the revolution Mohamed Aboutrika included – were injured as they rushed into their dressing rooms. (Aboutrika, shaken by the attack, has since announced his retirement from football.)
At least 73 people were killed (martyred, as many observers and mourners on Twitter, Facebook and the Egyptian blogosphere have noted), and many more injured. As those under attack–mostly Ahlawy, though this type of violence rarely leaves anyone untouched–attempted to leave, it was discovered that most of the exits were locked, and the stadium lights were shut off in the midst of the chaos.
The videos coming out of the Port Said stadium are horrendous. Such violence is not unheard of in the aftermath of football matches in Egypt (or anywhere in the world, for that matter), but it took even seasoned football announcers by complete surprise.
The Ultras in Egypt do not share the sometimes-fascist roots of their counterparts in Europe. Although politics also play an incredible role in the breakdown between fans of the various teams throughout Egypt, football had been frequently utilized by Hosni Mubarak’s regime as an attempt to distract citizens from their daily oppression, as well as stoke tensions between neighborhoods, cities, and nations. But this has not always been successful.
One of the many Ahly chants routinely heard at football matches is “Down, Down With the Junta Rule!” Last year I cited Dave Zirin in a short piece discussing Al Ahly’s political history on Africa Is A Country. Zirin’s observation that Egyptian football clubs and anti-government organizations “walked together in comfort” remains a reminder of why many Egyptians–myself, a product of four generations of Ahlawy included–do not for one moment believe this is “just” football fanaticism.
The video above displays clearly the riot-gear clad security forces doing nothing while Al Ahly’s players sprint to the relative safety of their dressing rooms. This is not the first time in the last year Egyptians have seen this happen. Recall that on 28 January of last year, many were paid and armed to attack protestors in Meydan Tahrir and other gathering areas.
Mubarak and his supporters not only used this as ‘proof’ that they were in the right, but also to allege that Egyptians were ‘not ready’ to lead themselves. This moment is clear in the minds of many at a moment when SCAF has echoed these same arguments in an attempt to retain power and maintain the Emergency Law that has been in place since 1980. SCAF now promises another ‘crackdown,’ though, as usual, it does not specify what particular entity will be targeted.
Al Ahly Ultras asserted in a public statement: “[SCAF] want to punish us and execute us for our participation in the revolution against suppression. Given this and the broader public rage directed at the military for protecting and serving only itself, we must expect that SCAF will be cracking down on the very people mourning the loss of life and continued absence of their liberty in Egypt. Indeed, the protests throughout the nation that immediately followed the riot turned into all-out battles between military police and ultras. As one interviewee warned The New York Times, “They turned the biggest fan base in the country against them.”
For more details and perspectives, please read James M. Dorsey’s articles on the Foreign Policy and Time websites, here and here, as well as Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani’s thoughts on the LRB blog.
* Crossposted with the Soccer Politics blog.