A major Egyptian group of ultras, fanatical soccer fans who played a key role in the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and was developing into a powerful political pressure group, invaded the pitch during their team’s crucial African Champions League match against Tunisia’s Club Africain in a stunning reversal of their fortunes.
Ultras White Knights (UWK), the highly organized radical fan group of crowned Cairo club Zamalek SC, stormed Cairo International Stadium’s soccer pitch in the 90th minute of the game disrupting the match, destroying goal posts and everything else in their path.
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 reflected the growing influence of hooligans within the group.
It came a day after key UWK members said they would leverage their credibility earned in the demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s departure in February to pressure Egypt’s military authorities to eradicate corruption, remove from office all officials in government and public organizations who are associated with Mubarak and adopt a pro-Palestinian foreign policy.
Those ambitions are at best likely to be put on hold as the UWK and Egypt deal with the far-reaching consequences of the fact that the group’s leaders appear to have lost control of their members. The group’s future will probably be determined by what punitive measures the Confederation of African Football (CAF) imposes on Zamalek and whether the disruption sparks a definitive cancellation of this season’s Egyptian Premier League.
Some UWK members said the incident could mark the end in Egypt of the ultras, organized violence-prone militant soccer fans modeled on similar organizations in Italy and Serbia. “This is the end, it is over,” said Gemyhood, widely seen as the godfather of the Egyptian ultra movement.
The incident has already prompted a shower of criticism of the group. Egyptian Prime Minister publicly apologized to Tunisia for the incident. Fans on Facebook and Twitter denounced the UWK for shaming Egypt.
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 bringing 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, which would have further tarnished their image. Security forces were in the stadium only in small numbers without arms or batons and wore 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.
“Everything was going perfect. We had banners, a pyro show and flares. Now it is all destroyed,” said Ahmed Ali Morgan, one of UWK’s founders, who before Saturday’s match together with other ultra leader had expressed fears that some ultras were primed to provoke a conflict during the match.
“I’m nervous. This could really turn bad,” added 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.
UWK leaders 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.
Analysts said UWK had attracted large numbers of members who lacked the kind of commitment the group’s founders have. UWK members conceded that there was a tug of war within the group between members committed to the principles of the global ultra movement and inspired by anarchism, and those who wanted hooliganism to dominate the group.
While ultra leaders accepted responsibility for the incident, admitting that ultras had led angry fans onto the pitch, some analysts pointed 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.
The invasion of the pitch has at least temporarily undermined the UWK’s intention to use the resumed soccer matches to demand to end corruption in Egypt and the removal 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’ political goals reflected their determination to employ their high degree of organization and street battle experience to exert political pressure. Committed anarchists who oppose any kind of hierarchical system of government, 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 that now has been tarnished.
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