Militant soccer fans of crowned Cairo soccer club Zamalek SC decided Sunday to freeze their activities in a bid to regain control of hooligans in their ranks who this weekend invaded the pitch during their team's crucial African championship match against Tunisia's Club Africain.
The decision was taken at a meeting of the Ultra White Knights (UWK), the militant, violence-prone Zamalek fan group modeled on similar organizations in Italy and Serbia.
In a draft statement scheduled to be issued by UWK later on Sunday, the group apologises for hundreds of its members invading the pitch on Saturday in the 90th minute of the match, destroying everything in their path. The statement admits that the group had lost control.
Ahmed Ali Morgan, a UWK co-founder said the freezing of activities could last up to six months. He said many of the hooligans would likely leave the group as a result of the freeze. "We will make clear to those that stay what the rules are," Morgan said.
Morgan said the group would maintain its political agenda, but would push it as individuals rather than as a group during the freeze.
Leaders of the UWK wanted to leverage credibility they had gained by playing a key role in the anti-government demonstrations on Cairo's Tahrir Square that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February after 30 years in office to press for eradication of corruption, the removal of all officials associated with Mubarak from government and public organizations and a more pro-Palestinian foreign policy.
The pitch invasion brought to the surface a mounting battle within the group between the UWK's highly politicised founders and more educated younger members and more nihilistic youth who have swelled its ranks. "Its minds against muscle," said Gemmyhood, widely seen as the godfather of the ultra movement in Egypt.
The split was evident immediately after the match as many UWK members celebrated their successful disruption of the match while wiser members were stunned and shocked fearing that this would undermine their popularity and ability to act as a political pressure group. Many leaders feared it could signal the end of the ultras who have organized groups associated with several Egyptian Premier League clubs.
Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf apologised to Tunisia for the incident and ordered the interior ministry to launch an investigation. He called the incident "an act of thuggery." Egyptians created a Facebook group was set up to apologise to Tunisians for the incident. Fans on Facebook and Twitter denounced the UWK for shaming Egypt.
UWK leaders who had put on a well-oiled display of support for Zamalek with flares, fireworks, 70 meter long banners and smoke guns, said the disruption of the game in which Zamalek was leading 2-1 was a result of fan frustration that their team had not achieved the two-point victory it needed to advance in the African championship and anger at the match’s Moroccan referee who they believed to have been unfair.
UWK leaders and political analysts said the disruption of the game handed a victory to the police, the ultras arch enemy whom they have battled almost weekly since their inception four years ago and who are widely viewed as the repressive henchmen of the Mubarak regime.
The police were largely absent during the match despite warning on Friday that they would prevent fans from bring fireworks, flares and banners into the stadium. The absence contrasted starkly with past practice in which security forces had a large presence at soccer matches, operating multiple checkpoints and preventing fans from bringing anything into the stadium.
Ultra leaders said the police force had opted at the match not to stand by their warning to avoid a confrontation with the ultras that would have further tarnished their image.
Security forces were in the stadium only in small numbers without arms or batons and wearing blue and Bordeaux red track suits rather than their black uniforms to project a changed image. A small number of uniformed riot police stepped aside as the fans stormed the soccer pitch.
Ultra leaders said the police would likely cite the disruption as evidence that their absence from Cairo’s streets since Mubarak’s overthrow in February will lead to a breakdown of law and order.
Some analysts point to statements by controversial Zamalek board member Ibrahim Hassan immediately after last month’s initial match in Tunis against Club Africain, which Zamalek lost 4-2. The match was interrupted by a few Tunisian fans invading the pitch during the game. CAF did not punish the Tunisian Club for the game.
“This can’t be a football game. This is a fiasco. Our goalkeeper Mahmoud Abdul-Rahim found a supporter lying in the goal when he countered a dangerous ball. Other (Tunisian) supporters were running across the field. This is not the freedom we were calling for. I tell you this will be repeated in Egypt. I call on Zamalek fans to come down during the return game in Cairo,” Ibrahim told Egyptian online radio GoalFMRadio.com.
Analysts suggested that Hassan may have believed that Zamalek like Club Africain would get away with a disruption of the game. They said the remarks could spark the end of the career of Hassan, a famous former player, known for his temper and emotion. Some fans have demanded Hassan’s resignation because of his support for Mubarak during the anti-government protests and his call for the demonstrations to be suppressed.
UWK leaders expected CAF to suspend Zamalek for at least two years from African championships, but analysts said CAF could take into account the fact that the police were largely absent during the match as a result of Egypt’s political turmoil. In that case, CAF could opt to only ban Zamalek from playing African matches in Egypt for a period of time or order it to play with exclusion of spectators.
Equally ominously, Egyptian Football Association (EFA) president Samir Zaher said the EFA was considering cancelling Egypt’s Premier League. Egypt’s military authorities reluctantly agreed last month to a resumption of the League after a three-month suspension to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations.
Zaher’s remarks suggested the military may use the disruption of the match as an excuse to reverse their decision.
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