Egyptian football fans threaten to revive stadia as battle fields

Egyptian football fans threaten to revive stadia as battle fields

Egyptian football fans threaten to revive stadia as battle fields

Fans of Egypt’s Al Ahly light flares during their 2013 FIFA Club World Cup football match for 5th place against Mexico’s Monterrey in Marrakech stadium, Dec 18. REUTERS photo

With multiple potential flashpoints coinciding, militant, street-battle hardened Egyptian football fans threaten to align stadia alongside the country’s universities as battle grounds against the armed forces and the military-backed government.

The football support groups known as “ultras” have warned that they will disrupt Egypt’s newly revived league competition if spectators continue to be barred from stadia. The leagues resumed last month after being suspended for almost two years. Initially, the suspension was intended to prevent further violence in the wake of the death in Port Said in February 2012 of 74 fans in a politically-loaded brawl for which the fans hold the military responsible. 

The suspension was repeatedly extended for fear that the fans, who played a key role in the 2011 ousting of President Hosni Mubarak and had turned stadia in the years preceding into battle grounds, would again use stadia as a platform for political dissent. 

The militant fan organizations were originally divided in attitudes towards last year’s military overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, first democratically elected president. Those divisions have begun to whither much as popular support for the military has started to fray at the edges as a result of the brutal crackdown on Islamist and non-Islamist opposition.

A recent Pew Research center poll reflects Egypt’s stark polarization. Yet, contrary to public perception that a vast majority of Egyptians would opt for stability rather than democracy, slightly more than half of those polled said they chose democracy even if it meant political instability. 

That sense reflects sentiment among many militant football fans who, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have long been targets of security services that were widely despised not only because they confronted the militants in stadia but also because of their corruption and brutal tactics in popular neighborhoods from which the fans hail.

The threat to turn stadia into battlefields came as Egypt prepares for a referendum next week on a Constitution that would preserve the military’s key privileges, despite what are likely to be cosmetic changes unless they are embedded in a pluralistic context. 

The timing of the ultras’ threat heightened the risk of further civic unrest. It preceded the third anniversary of the beginning of Egypt’s popular revolt on Jan. 25, the second anniversary of the Port Said incident on Feb. 1, the anniversary of the downfall of Mubarak on Feb. 11, and the postponement until next month of emotionally charged appeals of many of those convicted for responsibility for the deaths in Port Said. The resumption of football leagues means stadia could join universities, which have been one of the few platforms for anti-government and anti-military protest. The university protests foiled the regime’s hope that a draconian new protest would make collective public expression of dissent all but impossible.

Student and football fan activism have long been drivers of Egyptian protest. Fans acted as the shock troops of the anti-Mubarak revolt as well as anti-military protests prior to the election of Morsi in July 2012. Some analysts suggest the revolt against Mubarak may not have succeeded without the ultras’ ability to confront security forces. In a statement this week on their Facebook page that has 446,000 followers, Ultras White Knights (UWK), the support group of storied Cairo club al-Zamalek SC, said: “Shame on you … down with your regime and government. Nothing will prevent us from returning to the stands, it’s our right … Either a return for the fans [to the stands] to breathe life into the competition or a final chapter for the fake and void competition … Supporters must continue the pursuit of their right, while the tournament goes to Hell. Only God can stop us.” Past experience shows that attempts to repress football fans under Mubarak only served to steel their resolve. Similarly, brutal police tactics propelled militant football fans in Turkey to join last year’s anti-government Gezi Park protests in Istanbul.

Ultras criminalized by authorities

In November, supporters of crowned Cairo club al-Ahli SC, Zamalek’s arch rival, dashed the government’s hopes of wrapping itself in the club’s eighth triumph as African champion when they clashed with security forces during the tournament’s final and commemorated the Port Said dead with chants, posters, bright red flares and fireworks. Striker Ahmed Abdul Zaher celebrated his decisive goal in the final with a four-fingered hand signal - a gesture that commemorates the sit-in of Morsi supporters at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque that was violently cleared by security forces in August, leaving hundreds killed.

Despite apologizing for the gesture, Abdul Zaher was censored by both al-Ahli and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA). He was also denounced by the Egyptian sports minister Taher Abouzeid. Abdul Zaher has since moved to Libyan premier league team al-Ittihad. He was the second athlete in as many weeks to be penalized for showing the anti-military four finger sign. Kung Fu fighter Mohamed Youssef was suspended for a year for showing the Rabaa sign after he won a gold medal in the Sports Accord Combat Games competition in St. Petersburg.

Egyptian football referee Atef El-Afi was so intimidated by the disciplinary measures that he signaled a four-minute stoppage of a match of a league match on New Year’s Day by holding up both his hands with four fingers showing to ensure that it would not be interpreted as a political statement. I just didn’t want to be misunderstood,” “Mr. El-Afi told sports website FilGoal.

Egyptian government and pro-government media as well as club executives last fall denounced the ultras as terrorists. This is a tactic increasingly adopted by autocrats and illiberal democrats across the Middle East and North Africa in a bid to criminalize their opponents. 

Turkey’s anti-terrorism office last year published a video suggesting that peaceful protest was a precursor for terrorism. The video showed a young woman participating in the Gezi Park protests subsequently putting on a suicide bomber’s vest. “We are still demanding what is right and fighting for it,” the UWK said last October to efforts to defame it.