Ultras bolster protesters in battles on Cairo’s Tahrir Square

Mil­i­tant soc­cer fans bol­stered this week­end the ranks of demon­stra­tors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demand­ing an end to mil­i­tary rule in a re-enact­ment of the protests that oust­ed Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak in Feb­ru­ary.

Like ear­ly this year, the ultras – mil­i­tant, high­ly politi­cised, vio­lence-prone fan groups mod­elled on sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tions in Ser­bia and Italy – took the lead in con­fronting mil­i­tary police seek­ing to clear Tahrir Square. With­in an hour of their arrival on late Sat­ur­day after­noon, police retreat­ed from the square as bat­tles con­tin­ued for sev­er­al hours on the side streets.

“The Ultras are here. I know that because they’re the only ones fac­ing the CSF (Egypt’s para­mil­i­tary Cen­tral Secu­ri­ty Force) with force while singing their (anti-secu­ri­ty police) hymns,” tweet­ed a pro­test­er from Tahrir. “The ultras are kick­ing the police’s ass,” tweet­ed anoth­er pro­test­er.

The ultra’s sayaadin or hunters sim­i­lar to the bat­tles in Feb­ru­ary on Sun­day hurled tear gas can­is­ters fired by the police back into the ranks of the law enforcers. The tac­tic that worked against Mr. Mubarak’s police and secu­ri­ty forces ear­ly this year failed how­ev­er to stop the mil­i­tary police from forc­ing demon­stra­tors out of the square in a mass stam­pede.

Nonethe­less, once they had regrouped, the ultras led thou­sands of pro­test­ers back into Tahrir. The ultras quick­ly erect­ed bar­ri­cades in prepa­ra­tion of expect­ed fur­ther clash­es that this week­end caused at least one death and the injur­ing of hun­dreds of oth­ers.

Pro­test­ers had called for the street bat­tle-hard­ened ultras to join them as the bat­tle for Tahrir raged through the after­noon on Sat­ur­day, with skir­mish­es spread­ing through Cairo’s war­ren of tight streets and small­er squares.

The ultras — sup­port­ers of arch rival, crowned Cairo clubs Al Ahly SC and Al Zamalek SC – played a key role in the protests that top­pled Mr. Mubarak. They have since been vocal in their demand that the mil­i­tary which suc­ceed­ed the oust­ed pres­i­dent stick to its pledge to lead Egypt to elec­tions with­in six months. That timetable has already slipped with the first stage of elec­tions sched­uled for Novem­ber 28, nine months after the down­fall of Mr. Mubarak.

Ultras have clashed repeat­ed­ly with secu­ri­ty forces in recent months and in Sep­tem­ber led pro­test­ers in an attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo that forced Israel to evac­u­ate its diplo­mat­ic per­son­nel. Israel’s ambas­sador returned to the Egypt­ian cap­i­tal this week­end.

Fuelled by a belief that they own the sta­di­um as the only uncon­di­tion­al sup­port­ers of their team, the ultras gar­nered their street fight­ing expe­ri­ence in years of week­ly bat­tles with the police and rival fans. Much like hooli­gans in Britain whose atti­tudes were shaped by the decay­ing con­di­tion of sta­di­ums, Egypt­ian ultras were dri­ven by the Mubarak regime’s attempt to con­trol their space by turn­ing it into a vir­tu­al fortress ringed by black steel.

The strug­gle for con­trol pro­duced a com­plete break­down, social decay in a micro­cosm. If the space was expend­able, so was life. As a result, mil­i­tant fans would con­front the police each week­end with total aban­don­ment. It was that aban­don­ment that won them the respect of many Egyp­tians and that they brought ear­ly this year and again on Sun­day to Tahrir Square. It was also cou­pled with their street bat­tle expe­ri­ence what enabled them to help pro­test­ers ear­ly this year break down bar­ri­ers of fear that had kept them from con­fronting the regime in the past and cement­ed resolve this week­end on Tahrir Square.

The join­ing of forces of arch rival ultras from Ahly and Zamalek, who for much of the past decade fought one anoth­er vicious­ly ear­ly this year in the strug­gle to top­ple Mr. Mubarak and again this week­end serves as an indi­ca­tion of how deep-seat­ed the demand is for the mil­i­tary to relin­quish con­trol.

Dis­il­lu­sion with the mil­i­tary that was cel­e­brat­ed at the time of Mr. Mubarak’s demise because of its refusal to back the pres­i­dent and open fire on the demon­stra­tors has been under­mined by the fact that the mil­i­tary since tak­ing over the reins has stum­bled from cri­sis to cri­sis and extend­ed the peri­od for a han­dover of pow­er until 2013 when Egyp­tians will elect their pres­i­dent on the basis of a new con­sti­tu­tion to be draft­ed by an elect­ed con­stituent assem­bly. Anger at the mil­i­tary was fuelled by the military’s tabling ear­ly this month of supra-con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ci­ples that it want­ed to be bind­ing on the com­mis­sion that will draft the new con­sti­tu­tion and that would have allowed the armed forces to impose their ver­sion of democ­ra­cy based on con­tin­ued mil­i­tary.

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.