Avertible bane in Egypt
James M. Dorsey
Soccer fans clashes following a match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masri at the stadium of Port Said, some 220 kilometers north east of Cairo in a sign of deep rift among society.Egyptian security forces’ efforts to exploit Feb. 1’s football violence in Port Said, in which 74 people were killed, could backfire with mounting evidence that authorities should have been aware of plans to disrupt the match between local side Al-Masri and Cairos’ Al-Ahly.
A series of messages on Twitter in advance of the match between the two rivals, whose fans already clashed last June in Port Said, as well as analysis by football officials of video of the incident, is sparking outrage among Egyptians who have not previously supported the country’s militant, highly politicized, violence-prone football ultras.
The security forces’ low-level presence in the Port Stadium – which is part of an effort in the past year by the unpopular police forces to avoid clashes with the ultras – was also designed to demonstrate that the police was needed to prevent a breakdown of law and order.
‘Police attitude was backed by military rulers’
With the Port Said incidents, many Egyptians are convinced that the police’s attitude was backed by the country’s military rulers in a bid to further drive a wedge between the militant groups, the most radical opponents of continued military rule, and a protest-weary public that still has confidence in the military despite its brutal crackdown on protesters but is frustrated by the lack of tangible economic benefit from the revolt and wants a return to normalcy so that Egypt can resume economic growth.
Whether that strategy will work could be put to the test today when it becomes clear what kind of response the ultras, which were founded by professionals and students and are credited for their role last year in Egypt’s anti-government revolt, will receive to their calls for a protest march on the interior minister. The sense that the police and the military failed to live up to their responsibilities in Port Said and that the violence was not spontaneous could work in the ultras’ favor.
“There was something planned. Our security knew about it. People were tweeting before the match. I saw a tweet with my own eyes 13 to 14 hours before the match in which an Al-Masri fan was telling Al-Ahly supporters: ‘If you are coming to the match, write your will before you come,” said Diaa Salah, a member of the women’s committee of the Egyptian Football Federation (EFA) whose board consists of ousted President Hosni Mubarak appointees and a former manager of a football club.
“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,” Salah said.
Ultras of Al-Ahly, a club founded more than a century ago as a center of anti-British, republican nationalism, together with supporters of their arch Cairo rival Zamalek, the club created by British colonial administrators, their Egyptian allies and monarchists, set their deep-seated hatred of one another aside in the past year to join forces first against Mubarak and then against the military.
The ultras played a key role in breaking the barrier of fear that had prevented Egyptians from protesting en masse against the government and formed the outer defense line on Tahrir Square last year against the security forces and Mubarak loyalists. Ultras later led the storming of the offices of Mubarak’s hated State Security Service shortly after his departure and of the Israeli embassy in September, fought repeated battles with security forces in the stadiums and finally took part in the vicious battles in November and December around Tahrir Square to demand the military immediately return to its barracks.
The ultras’ fearlessness, coupled with their record of years of hostility toward the police, increasingly drew thousands of disaffected, less-educated and often unemployed youth whose political thinking was less sharply defined and who bear a deep-seated grudge against the police for the violence and abuse they suffered in years of clashes in the stadiums.
Not the first incident of losing control
Last April, at a match between Zamalek and Esperance Sportive du Tunis – the first African club match in Cairo to which the public was freely admitted – ultras stormed the pitch in the 90th minute, destroying everything in their path. The leaders of the ultras admitted at the time that they were losing control to a charismatic young man with no education and no job.
In a clear indication that leaders of both Al-Ahly and Zamalek ultras were seeking to curb violence, Ultras White Knights (UWK), the Zamalek support group, called on Al-Ahly to agree to a truce in a statement issued before the Port Said game and before the Feb. 8 Al-Ahly-Zamalek derby.
“We are asking for an end to the bloodshed and to reconcile and unite for the sake of Egypt,” the UWK said. Ultras Ahlawy replied with a smiley.
That call is now more relevant than ever. The ultras, whether they walked into a trap or initiated the Port Said violence, have no doubt again dug themselves into a hole. This time, however, it will be much tougher to dig themselves out. They have played into the hands of the military and the police in dealing a lethal blow to contentious street politics as opposed to electoral politics and the horse trading associated with it. For those who believe that only continued protests will ensure Egypt’s transition to a democracy and prevent remnants of the ancien regime and established opposition forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood from filling the political vacuum, Feb. 1 will remain a black day.