After years of political activism, Egypt’s Ultras eye a second tragedy with suspicion and anger
By Gabriel Luis Manga | Illustration by Harrison Creech
[O]n Sunday, February 8, the Ultras White Knights (UWK), hardcore supporters of Zamalek SC, one of Egypt’s most historic clubs, gathered at Cairo’s Air Defence Stadium. After a two year ban on spectators (a result of the horrific Port Said massacre) the Ultras, many of them students at elite universities, were finally ready to take in a match. The Air Defence Stadium is gleaming and modern, within view of the brand new IKEA and McMansions of Cairo’s new suburbs. Built as part of the larger Air Defense Olympic Village, with sports fields and an Olympic swimming structure, the stadium and compound are a stark reminder of the role that the military and security play in all facets of the Egyptian state.
As the group approached the stadium gate the story goes fuzzy: did the fans demand to be let in for free, a practice not uncommon in a league where the Ultras often form the majority of the crowd in half-filled stadiums? Had they previously been told that they would be able to enter the game for free? Did they, in fact, have tickets only to be told they could not enter? Details vary, but the evidence shows a push to get in, and a situation that was set up for disaster from the beginning.
At the gate the Ultras are met with barbed wire and a narrow cage through which to enter the stadium. With the crowd swelling against the narrow entrance, (ed: warning, graphic footage) a masked officer begins firing tear gas into the group. setting off a stampede of thousands running to avoid the suffocation of the vapor. Twenty-two lives are lost. And why? Because 2,000 youths attempted to watch a match for free? For the Egyptian security forces, who speak of order and security as a mantra but practice violence and demand subservience, this was too much to bear. There would be no trial and no jury. Death was the punishment for the slightest defiance. The match, despite the carnage yards away, went on.
The response from the state and security apparatus was predictable: The police were simply defending themselves from an unruly crowd attempting to break the law. There was no mention of failure to properly control a crowd. No condolences were offered. No day of mourning. The fans, having rushed the entrance, were to blame for the deaths of their friends. Lives were taken in an instant, and chaos was set off. But it was a moment brought about by a much larger political context in which the youth of Egypt are kept on the sidelines of politics, economics, and the future of the country.
Despite Egypt’s formidable football history, with Zamalek and Ahly each founded over 100 years ago, the phenomena of the “Ultra” is fairly new. For years, Egyptian football was more bread and circus, a tool for social appeasement, than a den of revolutionary fervor.
The Egyptian Premier League is a top heavy affair. Al Ahly, based in the capital of Cairo and claiming 50 million fans is a powerhouse in every sense of the word. They have won 37 league titles and over 100 trophies. Ahly’s fellow Cairene rival, Zamalek, is the second most successful club with 11 titles (having been runner up 31 times). The rest of the league is made up of a mix of squads from smaller cities (Port Said, Alexandria, Ismailia), and Soviet-style sponsored teams: Police Union Club, Army Production Club, Border Guards Club, Mahalla Textiles, Petroleum Club. Since the league’s founding in 1948, a club other than Ahly or Zamalek has won the title only six times. With these industry-funded and smaller clubs rarely challenging the mass-supported Ahly and Zamalek for titles, it was a fortuitous set-up for the former president Hosni Mubarak, always keen on maintaining stability and social calm.
They made their demands clear: there would be accountability, or the sprawling metropolis of 20 million would come to a halt.
In the 2000s, Mubarak was praised abroad for his continued economic opening of Egypt: publicly owned industries were privatized, foreign business and investment began flowing in, and the economy and GDP were growing. Starbucks and foreign chains popped up around Cairo. Satellite cities of cul-de-sacs and green lawns were built for the elite who were looking to escape the dirt and overcrowding of the city.
Yet, this opening of the economy failed to trickle down to the rest of Egyptian society. Egypt’s once formidable middle class continued to dwindle. It was perceived that Mubarak, his sons, and their cronies were the only beneficiaries of this supposed growth. It was out of this era that both the Ultras (2007) and more overtly political groups such as the April 6th movement (2008) would form.
One of the more common archetypes around Egypt is that of the doctor driving a taxi cab. The cook with an engineering degree. The pharmacist selling juice. Youth unemployment in Egypt still hovers at over 25 percent, reeling from exclusion from Mubarak-era growth and hurt further by four years of downturn due to turmoil and mismanagement.
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[F]or many Egyptian young people who have gone to university and studied hard only to find low paying jobs or no work at all, the football stadium is a cathartic outlet for their sense of disenfranchisement. It was only natural that, as they have across the world, these young men formed familial groups in the Ultras.
Fan groups worldwide are politically active, but few can claim an impact as large as groups such as UWK and UA07 (Al Ahly) had in the Egyptian revolution and beyond. They stood side by side to help bring down Mubarak during the 2011 revolution, and in clashes and protests since then served as power brokers in the impact of protest movements.The group’s involvement became a sort of marker of the intensity of a protest. The news would ring out on twitter and social media: “Protest picking up steam, big numbers now, the Ultras have arrived …”
This didn’t go unnoticed, and many spoke openly of the hatred shared between the state security apparatus and the Ultras following the revolution. To some, the deaths of 74 Ahly Ultras in Port Said in February 2012 were not just an instance of Al Masry fans killing Al Ahly fans, but a premeditated revenge by Egyptian security against the Ultras who had proven so pivotal during Egypt’s revolutionary period, a time many in state security look back on with great humiliation.
The massacre is still shrouded in questions. Why were the stadium lights turned off? Why were the exits welded shut? How were Al Masry fans able to bring in weapons? Were the murderous Masry “fans” actually paid thugs? In the three years that followed the Egyptian league operated sporadically, with spectators almost entirely banned from witnessing games in person. The trials of Port Said fans charged with killing Ahly fans caused a veritable game of chicken in Egypt. Ahly’s Ultras, demanding justice for their brothers, shut down the stock market, the trains, and the bridges throughout Cairo.
They made their demands clear: there would be accountability, or the sprawling metropolis of 20 million would come to a halt. The perception was that the judiciary faced a decision: sacrifice Cairo, or sacrifice Port Said, a city who believed their fans on trial were not only innocent, but scapegoats for a larger government conspiracy. The ruling came down, death by hanging for 21 fans of Port Said’s Al Masry Club, setting off massive riots and weeks of unrest in Port Said. Protesters threatened to shut down the Suez Canal, which begins in their city. Cheers in Cairo at the rulings turned to protests as the Ahly Ultras discovered that among the 21 sentenced to death, none were police — a contingent many viewed as responsible for the coordination of this massacre.
The massacre at Port Said immediately drew comparisons to the English disaster at Hillsborough. The authorities in England were far from exemplary in the handling of that situation, both in the moment and later in their treatment of the families of the dead. However, Hillsborough did bring reform and discussion in England as to the standards of stadiums, crowd control, and ways to avoid similar tragedy. Almost three years to the day since Port Said, time enough for pondering, reflection, and reform in stadium standards and practices, and the Egyptian FA, security forces, and establishment’s only solution has been a band-aid: to ban spectators completely.
When the time came to finally allow fans back into games, the events at the Air Defence Stadium proved no lessons had been learned. As the Ultras of Zamalek die, fellow revolutionary leaders Alaa Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Douma languish in jail along with countless others. The tragedy at the Air Defence Stadium serves as a perfect example of the state’s narrative on youth, viewing them not as active stakeholders of the country’s future, but as a group that must be held in check.
At the stadium just as they are in politics, Egyptian youth continue to be held back, on the outside looking in.
Gabriel Luis Manga lives in New York City and writes about soccer, politics, social phenomena, and food. Prior to New York, he lived in Cairo where he helped create the first educational reality TV show for Egyptian youth, which aired in 2014. Follow him at @Champagne_Gaby.