Egyptian Police and Ultras Brace for Clash at African Championship

James M. DorseyCorrespondent IApril 2, 2011

Militant fans gear up for clash with police
Militant fans gear up for clash with policeGallo Images/Getty Images

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian security forces and militant soccer fans were bracing themselves Saturday for the first post-revolution clash as the supporters prepared to stage their biggest choreographed, flare-assisted performance yet during crowned Cairo club Zamalek SC’s crucial African championship match against Tunisia’s Club Africain.

The display of critical but unconditional support for their club is designed to signal the Zamalek ultras’ militant commitment to their independence, determination to ensure that Egypt returns to democracy and their newly emerged confidence as a political force after having played a key role in February’s ousting of President Hosni Mubarak from 30 years in power.

The ultras are committed anarchists who oppose any kind of hierarchical system of government.

“I’m nervous. This could really turn bad,” said Sayyed, a street battle-hardened charismatic co-founder of the ultras, as he sat on a bench in the Zamalek club’s headquarters with some two dozen fellow ultras who were preparing for Saturday’s display.

Security officials telephoned ultra leaders on Friday to warn them that they would not be allowed to bring into the stadium flares, bottled water, banners, textiles and other equipment needed to stage their traditional display of militant support for their team, that includes a full 90 minutes of loud chanting.

Included in Saturday’s repertoire will be a newly written song praising the Egyptian revolution and the ultras' role in it. Ultra leaders told the officials in no uncertain terms that they had no intention of obeying the order.

The planned display goes far beyond pure support of Zamalek during the match to include demands to end corruption in Egypt and remove supporters of Mubarak from all positions in government and public institutions.

“We will start attacking them,” said Mohammed Hassan, a 20-year old student of computer engineering who was wounded in the head-on Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s downfall.

“We will chant against Mubarak. We want him and his corrupt friends put on trial. We are focused on Egypt now, not only on sports,” Hassan said.

The ultras’ focus reflects the Zamalek ultras’ determination to employ their high degree of organization and street battle experience to exert political pressure.

The ultras formed the frontline in clashes with security forces and pro-Mubarak supporters during the demonstrations that brought the Egyptian president down.

Steeled by years of weekly clashes with security forces in the stadium as well as violent brawls with supporters of arch rival Cairo club Ahly SC, the Zamalek ultras were key in breaking the anti-Mubarak protesters’ fear of Mubarak’s hated security forces.

Their bravery and leadership earned them greater popularity and respect: assets they now intend to leverage.

James M. Dorsey is a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer