By James M. Dorsey
With Egypt entering its second day of unprecedented anti-government protests, soccer fans constitute a well-organized and feared pillar of the marshalling grassroots coalition determined to ensure that President Hosni Mubarak suffers the same fate as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled earlier this month by mass demonstrations.
The soccer fans, including the ultras of Cairo’s storied Al Ahly (The National) Sports Club, are part of an alliance of youth activists, Islamists and workers protesting against the government’s failure to alleviate poverty, eradicate corruption and provide jobs, as well as its employment of repression and torture to stymie opposition.
Protestors' demands range from increased political freedoms to dismissal of the hated interior minister to an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule and guarantees that the 82-year-old leader will not be succeeded by his son, Gamal.
“What we saw on the streets yesterday (Tuesday) are not just Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathizers but Egyptians at large; those are the Egyptians that you would see supporting the football national team—and their show of frustration was genuine and it had to be accommodated," a prominent parliament member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party told Egypt’s government-controlled Al Ahram newspaper.
A Facebook statement by Al Ahly’s feared ultras said earlier this week that the group was determined to remain non-political, but that its members were free as individuals to participate in the protests. “The group emphasizes that its members are free in their political choices,” the statement said.
Established in 2007, the ultras—modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs—have proven their mettle in confrontations with the Egyptian police, who charge that criminals and terrorists populate their ranks.
"There is no competition in politics, so competition moved to the soccer pitch. We do what we have to do against the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong,” said an El Ahly ultra last year after his group overran a police barricade trying to prevent it from bringing flares, fireworks and banners into the stadium. “You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We’re not political, the government knows that and has to deal with us,” he adds.
The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform in the Middle East, a region populated by authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration.
Algeria earlier this month cancelled a weekend of association soccer matches in a bid to seal off a rallying point for demonstrations protesting rising commodity prices. Riots in Jordan late last year that left 250 people injured exposed a deepening rift between East Bankers of Bedouin origin and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
“Soccer is bigger than politics. It's about escapism. The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law and five kids. He is paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes to the stadium and watches Ahly,” said Assad, a leader of Ahly’s ultras, “People suffer, but when Ahly wins they smile.”
El Ahly board member Khaled Motagi, scion of the club’s first post-revolution chairman added in a BBC radio documentary, The Power and The Passion. Ahly has given its fans reason to smile, winning Egypt’s championship 34 times and the African Cup six times; rival Zamalek has secured the Egyptian title 14 times and the African one five times.
It’s no wonder that Al Ahly’s rivalry with fellow Cairo club Al Zamalek is the world’s most violent derby. Their vicious rivalry on and off the pitch has caused death, destruction and, in at least one case in the early '70s, the entire league to be cancelled.
So deep-seated is their rivalry that the government insists that matches be played on neutral ground with foreign referees flown in to manage the game. Hundreds of black-clad riot police, soldiers and plainclothes security personnel, worried about what the teams’ ultras may have in store, surround the stadium on game day. Routes to and from stadiums are strictly managed so that opposing fans don’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.