Imagine anyone saying, “Boston Red Sox fans have proven invaluable to the mass, revolutionary struggle in the United States.” I can’t either. But that just speaks to how historically remarkable the Egyptian ultra fan clubs have been over the last two and a half years.
In Egypt’s recent era of popular upheaval, the hyper-intense soccer fans known as the ultras have played a critically important role that’s both practical and political. Practically, their experience in how to effectively fight the brutal Egyptian police proved invaluable to the initial 2011 securing of Tahrir Square as well as in subsequent demonstrations. Politically, the ultras have been a consistent force of resistance no matter who has held the seat of Egyptian power. They opposed President-for-life Hosni Mubarak; they opposed the first military interregnum; and then they opposed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi. The ultras could never be pacified because their political compass has always been directed to one central question: whether the state police and military will be held accountable for repressive violence against the people of Egypt. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had harsh words for the post-Mubarak military leadership when seventy-four Ultras were killed at the infamous Port Said soccer match, due to conscious police neglect. But when the MB did nothing to get justice for the “Port Said martyrs” upon assuming power, ultra opposition to Morsi was set in stone.
Now that the hated military is back in charge, one might assume that the ultras’ fierce brand of resistance will also be back. But not everyone believes this will be the case. At the invaluable news and analysis website Jadaliyya in an June 30, 2013, article titled ‘Egypt’s Ultras: No More Politics,’ Mohamed Elgohari writes that “the Egyptian Ultras groups, as collective bodies, will no longer become involved in Egypt’s ongoing political conflicts.”
He also argues, “Politics, by definition, implies compromises, variations in opinion and behavior, and perhaps fundamental divisions… engaging in politics instead, weakened these groups’ internal ties…. A collective political role for the ultras groups in the future is unlikely to be repeated unless there appears another immediate threat to their identity akin to the events of Port Said. The ultras groups’ identity simply cannot survive outside the stadium.”
Sure enough, the prominent Ultras Ahlawy group issued a statement that they from this point forward will have “nothing to do with politics.” The group says quite plainly that they will “not to get involved in politics again after realizing that the opposition doesn’t care about the country but simply aims to rule.”
I believe that Elgohari makes some very pertinent points, but people—particularly the military rulers in Egypt—would be wildly underestimating the ultras if they think they’ll sit out this next stage of the revolution.
First and foremost, as James Dorsey has pointed out, the statement by the ultras about “not getting involved in politics” is almost identical to one they issued in January of 2011, just days before they exploded onto the international scene in the battle to depose Mubarak. These kinds of statements are aimed to protect both their fan clubs and their individual members from being targeted by the state or by employers. The belief is that if they “officially” reject politics, then it allows them to avoid political repression. It has to be said that this may have worked in January 2011, but no one in their right mind would ever associate being an ultra with an apolitical pose at any time in the near future. The role of soccer fan clubs in Turkey and even at the demonstrations in Brazil, all of which paid tribute to the Egyptian trailblazers, only further consecrated their reputation as less soccer fan clubs driven to protest than basically political street fighters who just really really love soccer.
Secondly, the ultras aren’t a normal political entity that’s vertically structured and organized around a set of political principles. Everything flows more organically from the slogan of ultra groups worldwide, “ACAB” or “All Cops are Bastards.” In non-revolutionary times, that means they take to the streets and fight the police after a match, hooligan-style, in actions of frustrated release from the drudgery of daily life. But in times of upheaval, they grasp this “ACAB” principle and apply it to the situation at hand. In the Egyptian context, that means they arrive at the protest site, identify each other by scarves, shirts or signs, and quickly set about securing a given area from police violence.
What next, however, from these fans who fan the flames? They have been in the streets during the mass demonstrations that led to this week’s coup, often as a very welcome force protecting artists, dancers and singers doing street performances for mass audiences. Their hatred of the military also means, I believe, that they will be in the streets again in the days and weeks ahead. The ultras may celebrate with the best of them, but they won’t rest until the Egyptian military and police are held to account. That makes them extremely vital to this process and in the eyes of the state, quite dangerous. No one should be surprised if they are targeted ruthlessly by the military government in the weeks to come. The ultras have been there for the revolution. The revolution is going to need to be there for the ultras, if this dynamic process is going to move forward.