How Egypt’s soccer mobs are threatening the revolution

Wednesday’s lethal soc­cer riots in the Suez Canal town of Port Said, which left more than 73 spec­ta­tors and secu­ri­ty per­son­nel dead, marks a water­shed moment in Egypt after the ouster of for­mer pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak. This tragedy is not sim­ply a sto­ry of a match gone hor­ri­bly awry: It will have impor­tant and wide-rang­ing polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions, fur­ther iso­late mil­i­tant, high­ly politi­cized, vio­lence-prone fan groups, sin­gle out the police for renewed crit­i­cism, and strength­en calls for the impo­si­tion of law and order.

Ini­tial reports said the vio­lence erupt­ed dur­ing a match between sto­ried Cairo club Al Ahly, Egypt’s most pop­u­lar team, and Pre­mier League team Al Mas­ry, with only a min­i­mal num­ber of secu­ri­ty forces in the sta­di­um. While Wednesday’s dead­ly inci­dent con­sti­tutes the worst soc­cer-relat­ed vio­lence in an Egypt­ian sta­di­um in the country’s his­to­ry, it is not the first time that mil­i­tant fan groups — or “ultras,” mod­eled on sim­i­lar groups in Italy and Ser­bia — have invad­ed the pitch. The inci­dent is but one of a series of vio­lent events involv­ing soc­cer fans since Mubarak’s fall.

As in April, when fans of Al Ahly’s arch-rival Zamalek club invad­ed the pitch dur­ing the post-Mubarak era’s first African Cup match against a Tunisian team, rumors were swirling in Egypt about the rea­sons for Wednesday’s inci­dent. Some Egyp­tians spec­u­lat­ed that the secu­ri­ty forces delib­er­ate­ly allowed the clash­es to take place to prove that the police are need­ed to avoid a break­down of law and order. Oth­ers sug­gest­ed that Egypt’s mil­i­tary rulers engi­neered the lack of a police pres­ence in a bid to pro­voke the ultras and fur­ther under­mine their cred­i­bil­i­ty in a protest-weary coun­try frus­trat­ed with the country’s down­ward eco­nom­ic spi­ral.

Nei­ther assump­tion is total­ly off the wall. Ultras clashed with secu­ri­ty forces in Egypt­ian sta­di­ums almost week­ly for the four years before Mubarak’s fall and have been engaged in run­ning bat­tles in the past year in which scores of peo­ple were killed and thou­sands wound­ed. Ultras played a key role in the 18-day upris­ing and after­wards, includ­ing the storm­ing of State Secu­ri­ty Ser­vices offices in Feb­ru­ary, the hours-long siege of the Israeli Embassy in Sep­tem­ber, and in street clash­es near Tahrir Square in Novem­ber and Decem­ber, in which more than 50 peo­ple were killed and thou­sands injured.

The stakes are high for the ultras, with lead­ers effec­tive­ly hav­ing lost con­trol of a rank and file that has swelled in recent years with thou­sands of dis­af­fect­ed, unem­ployed, and often une­d­u­cat­ed youth who believe it is pay­back time against a police force that is wide­ly despised (the ultras’ mot­to: “All Cops Are Bas­tards”). After the clash­es at the Tunisia match in April, in which no one was killed, the lead­ers dis­cussed sus­pend­ing their activ­i­ties. They are cer­tain to take pause after the shock­ing num­ber of deaths in Port Said.

But can they rein in the rad­i­cals? Beyond the pay­back fac­tor, the absence of secu­ri­ty in the sta­di­ums means that for the first time in their his­to­ry, the ultras own the venue. At the slight­est provo­ca­tion — a con­tro­ver­sial deci­sion by a ref­er­ee, for exam­ple — the crowd goes berserk. That is all the more true for mil­i­tant fans who see them­selves as the club’s only true sup­port­ers and view man­agers as Mubarak appointees and play­ers as hired guns who will switch alle­giance when­ev­er anoth­er club makes a bet­ter offer.

The vio­lence of the ultras is direct­ed as much against those of rival clubs as it is against the secu­ri­ty forces. The anti-Mubarak protests of a year ago were the first time that fans of Ahly, which was found­ed in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry as the club of the nation­al­ists and oppo­nents of British colo­nial rule, and its fierce rival Zamalek, the club of the Brits, their Egypt­ian asso­ciates, and the monar­chy, set their dif­fer­ences aside to stand shoul­der-by-shoul­der in Tahrir Square. Ahead of an upcom­ing match sched­uled for Feb. 7, Zamalek’s ultras, the White Knights, last week called on their Ahlawy coun­ter­parts to agree to a truce. “We are ask­ing for an end to the blood­shed and to rec­on­cile and unite for the sake of Egypt,” the White Knights said in a state­ment on their Face­book page. Ultras Ahlawy replied with a smi­ley.

The match is now — wise­ly — sus­pend­ed, but the exchange sig­naled aware­ness on the part of the ultras’ lead­ers that the time had come to bury their war hatch­ets. They know that Egyp­tians are grow­ing increas­ing intol­er­ant of their vio­lence and mil­i­tan­cy, as evi­denced by recent Gallup and oth­er polls. Wednesday’s vio­lence sug­gests that the rank and file see mat­ters dif­fer­ent­ly, and will not take direc­tion from any­one.

The con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists may be on to some­thing: The riots in Port Said will like­ly strength­en the hand of those in the rul­ing mil­i­tary coun­cil who want to crack down hard on the ultras, who have formed the back­bone of street protests that have not qui­et­ed down even though Egypt has seat­ed an elect­ed par­lia­ment and will soon choose a new pres­i­dent. And this time, it seems, the Egypt­ian peo­ple will be with them.

About The Author:
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.