Tactical retreat: Ultras lying low in Egypt, Turkey rallies

Tactical retreat: Ultras lying low in Egypt, Turkey rallies

James M. Dorsey
Tactical retreat: Ultras lying low in Egypt, Turkey rallies

A group of fans walk with a banner of çArşı, Beşiktaş’s leading supporter group, in a rally on June 8, 2013. çArşı has been less active in Gezi Park protests after the detention of its members. DHA Photo

Militant football fans who played key roles in the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, opposition to post-Mubarak military rule, and last month’s mass protests against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been – as organizations – conspicuously absent from the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi and ongoing protests in Istanbul.

While endorsing the participation of their members in ongoing protests in both countries, violence-prone, militant football fans known as ultras in Egypt and Turkey have retreated to their traditional public stance but do not stop their followers from engaging politically. It is a position designed to minimize their vulnerability.

Egyptian ultras, one of the country’s largest civic groups, adopted that position on the eve of 18 days of mass protests in 2011 on Cairo’s Tahrir Square that forced Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. At the same time, leaders privately encouraged their members to play the key role they did in the president’s overthrow.

The past week’s events in Egypt form a dilemma for the ultras whose members populate the full spectrum of politics in the country. The ultras have a deep-seated distrust of the military and the security forces who have re-emerged in full strength as a result of the anti-Morsi protests. By the same token, many ultras oppose Morsi because of his perceived attempt to undermine the goals of Egypt’s popular revolt and his failure to reform the security sector.

Like in Egypt, rival fan groups united in Turkey last month to protect protesters and add their voice to the opposition against Erdoğan. But in contrast to the Egyptians, they publicly declared their united stand as organizations under the banner “Istanbul United.”

Nevertheless, the tactical retreat and renewed seemingly exclusive organizational focus on football by fan groups in Egypt and Turkey follows incidents in both countries ostensibly designed to intimidate the fans and curb their activism.

More than 70 Al-Ahly SC supporters were killed in February last year in a football brawl in Port Said that many believe was an effort – albeit one that exceeded intentions – to punish the ultras for their vicious clashes with the police. The ultras have since then staged Port Said-related protests and stormed stadiums because of a ban on spectators attending matches.

Lay low

Much like the Egyptian ultras, spokesmen for çArşı, the powerful and popular supporters’ group for Beşiktaş, say they are lying low since 20 of its members were charged with being part of an illegal organization in the wake of last month’s Gezi Park protests.

As a result, çArşı denies any relationship to nightly Hyde Park-style gatherings in Beşiktaş’s Abbasağa Park, one of multiple such public forums being held across the city. Nonetheless, çArşı members dressed in their club’s black and white often moderate the Abbasağa discussions and performances organized to discuss the future of the protest movement, exchange news and listen to music.

The charges against çArşı reflect Erdoğan’s attempts to criminalize the fans and the protesters in a bid to cater to a traditionalist and conservative base and distinguish himself from the more modernist façade of his Islamist rival, Fethullah Gülen, a powerful, self-exiled, 76-year-old imam with a strong popular and media base and influence in state institutions like the police and the judiciary.

Gülen shared Erdoğan’s criticism of the protesters but in contrast to the prime minister, quickly backed away from denouncing them as vandals and foreign agents. Instead, he urged his followers not to underestimate the grievances underlying the protests and to accept that his movement as well as the government had not done enough to resolve social problems. At the same time, he sought to drive a wedge between the protesters by praising the original peaceful environmentalists demonstrating against the cutting down of trees in Taksim’s Gezi Park as opposed to violent protesters, a reference to the football fans.

In contrast to a protest 24 hours earlier on Istanbul’s Taksim Square against Erdoğan’s haughtiness, grandiose urban plans for Istanbul and perceived attempts to Islamize Turkish society, security forces were nowhere to be seen during Fenerbahçe’s protest against a UEFA match-fixing ban. A day earlier, police armed with tear and pepper gas and backed up by a water cannon occupied Taksim and surrounded protesters seeking to enter the square.

Less visible was a second contrast between the two Istanbul protests: while Fenerbahce fans protested under their group and club’s banners, çArşı as a group has refused in recent weeks to participate in regular demonstrations on Taksim square.

“Gezi protests have shown that rival football fans can work together. The demonstrations have put Erdoğan on notice. But that’s not all. They also send a message to Gülen,” said one football fan.