Egypt was a very different place when I met Assad, the leader of Al Ahly’s football ultras Al Ahlawy. It was 2007 and his newly formed group of young, literate and passionate fans of Africa’s most successful club numbered just a few thousand. They carried banners to the Cairo International Stadium and sung chants, modelling themselves on the ultras – organised semi-political but often violent groups of hardcore supporters – from Italian teams like AC Milan. Their opposition that day were their hated city rivals Zamalek. But Assad and his Ahlawy reserved their true hatred for a bigger foe. The regime.
“The two biggest political parties in Egypt,” Assad told me on the way to the ground, “are Ahly and Zamalek”.
Back then former President Hosni Mubarak was as strong as he had ever been and the idea that an Arab Spring could sweep him from power was impossible to imagine. Under his rule, opposition and dissent was ruthlessly crushed. But in two spheres, two very different groups were given space to breath: the Muslim Brotherhood in the mosque and the ultras in the football stadium.
Every weekend the ultras of Egyptian football would ignite rivalries between local clubs but, more importantly, they would fight the heavy handed police that became symbolic of Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. Signs began to appear proclaiming: ACAB or All Cops Are Bastards. Leaders were arbitrarily arrested and detained. Chants became increasingly anti-government as the violence increased.
“Regime! Be very scared of us, we are coming tonight with intent,” Al Ahlawy would sing. “The supporters of Al Ahly will fire everything up. God almighty will make us victorious Go, hooligans!”
For ultras like Assad, the crackdown showed that the authorities were scared of the disaffected young people growing out of their country’s football stadiums. “The whole concept of any independent organisation didn’t exist, not unions, not political parties,” he said. “Then we started to organise football ultras ... to them it was the youth, in big numbers — very smart people — who could mobilise themselves quickly. They feared us.”
But violence has long been part of Egyptian football, and not all of it had its roots in opposition. The Ahly-Zamalak derby, one steeped in age old nationalist antagonisms as much as sheer geography, has often provoked clashes between the fans as much as the police. So much so that the match is played at the neutral Cairo International Stadium and foreign referees – usually from Scotland, where they are used to dealing with the white heat sectarianism of Celtic versus Rangers – take change of the matches. Yet it was in 2009 that the frustrations in Egyptian football spilled on to the streets and made global headlines.
A World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Algeria already had bad blood. In 1990, when the two teams met for a World Cup play off, which the then underdogs Egypt surprisingly won, riots broke out following fighting on the pitch. Egypt’s team doctor lost an eye after being bottled, allegedly, by a member of the Algerian team. When the two teams met 19 years later the government controlled press reminded everyone of the slight, ratcheting up the pressure before the game. Mubarak had often wrapped himself in the flag of the national team – the most successful in African history and current holders of the Africa Cup of Nations – to boost his own popularity. So much so that ultras like Assad refused to support the national team.
But the unrelentingly negative, anti-Algerian press led to the Algerian team bus being attacked and several of the players injured. The government controlled press reported that the Algerian players had injured themselves. When Algeria eventually beat Egypt, riots broke out in Cairo, Khartoum, Algiers, the south of France, even London. Ambassadors were recalled. Colonel Gaddafi even offered to mediate between the two countries. What had started as a football match ended in a diplomatic incident.
‘Battle of the Camels’
For the ultras, the sad violence and the international embarrassment at the regime’s attempts to manipulate the match for its own political ends marked a watershed moment in Egyptian society. Little over a year later, Mubarak and his hated sons were gone thanks to the January revolution. And the ultras played their part in his downfall. For the first time, the ultra groups of Al Ahly and Zamalek joined forces and marched in their thousands on to Tahrir Square. With few groups in Egyptian society having any experience of resisting the police, the ultras found themselves on the front line in the now infamous “Battle of the Camels”.
“We are fighting them [the police] in every match. We know them,” Ahmed, a leader of Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights group, told me last April. “We know when they [the police] run, when we should make them run. We were teaching them [the protesters] how to throw bricks.”
The détente was short lived and post-revolution Egypt has been marked with an upsurge in fan violence and pitch invasions. So much so that the Egyptian FA considered cancelling last season’s league. For the ultras, the violence has been a product of the hated police force melting away and leaving a security vacuum in Egypt, one which is being exploited by criminals and those with a vested interest in painting the ultras as little more than thugs.
But no one could have predicted that the upsurge in violence that lead to the deaths of 74 fans in Port Said. Many eyewitnesses point to the lack of police intervention in to the trouble, and the fact that many of the attackers from Al Masry – a smaller team that none the less has enjoyed a noisy, sometimes violent relationship with its glitzy Cairean rival - seemed to be armed with knives, something I have not seen once in Egyptian football over the past five years. For now the Egyptian government has cancelled the league and announced three days of mourning whilst football fans from across Egypt unite in wanting to find answers as to why this tragedy was allowed to happen. For many Al Ahly supporters, who are planning protests in Cairo over the next three days, it is clear where the blame lies.
“It’s the army and police[‘s] way to get back at the ultras for our stand against them in the revolution,” Assad said shortly after escaping the tragedy. Football played its part in helping to bring down a dictator. And it is now, in the aftermath of post-Revolution Egypt’s worst civil disturbance, shaking the ground on which the new regime treads.
James Montague is the author of When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, a book about football and politics in the Middle East. –Al Jazeera