Football and politics: A fiercely debated topic. There are those who argue that politics has no place in the game. Some may not advocate the intertwining of the two but believe that politics will ultimately creep into every aspect of life and hence energy should not be wasted trying to prevent it. On the opposite side of the argument, many supporters believe that politics belongs in football culture and do their utmost to preserve this.
Unsurprisingly, Ultras groups tend to have a very clear political outlook. In certain cases, this ideology is clearly outlined upon formation. Whilst matchday is predominantly about showing support and passion for their team, Ultras groups will often use both home and away games as an opportunity to express their support for certain causes.
Similarly, matchday has become a stage to protest. Many German Ultras groups, for example, were active in showing their support for refugees during the 2015 Syrian crisis. Outside of the stadium, there have also been various examples of fan groups coming together to support political and societal causes.
There may be no greater example, however, of football culture and politics overlapping than in the case of Cairo’s Ultras.
Egypt as a nation is football crazy. Unsurprisingly, the country’s most successful teams are residents of the capital. Egyptian football has historically been dominated by two sides: Al Ahly SC and Zamalek SC. Both have tens of millions of supporters across Egypt, Africa and the Arabic world.
Whilst support for both sides has always been colorful and passionate, a new lease of life was injected into the capital’s stadiums in 2007 when young supporters on both sides formed Egypt’s first ‘Ultras Groups’.
Fans of Zamalek SC formed the Ultras White Knights and were quickly followed by the Ultras Ahlawy of Al Ahly SC. Interestingly, neither group set out with any form of political intent. They simply saw themselves as passionate supporters who loved their club and their country. One Zamalek fan described their group as ‘the poor, the rich, the educated and the illiterate’. The sentiment amongst the Ultras Ahlawy was similar.
On the surface these appeared like any other fan group across the footballing world. Both would occupy areas behind one of the goals in their respective stadiums. A capo at the front of the terrace led the chanting. Large waver style flags adorned the terraces, pyrotechnics were often involved and both would organise pre-match tifo displays. The members of both groups came from all walks of life: They were college graduates, workers and people from every social level of Cairo and beyond.
However, unrest in Egypt would soon spill over into the Ultras world. Both groups saw themselves as patriots and with the ever-intensifying feeling of dissatisfaction with the Hosni Mubarak regime, politics started to creep into the terraces. There were ripples prior to the seismic events of 2011. In July 2010, Ultras Ahlawy decided to boycott games after what they perceived as unfair police confrontation during a pre-season friendly.
On the eve of the January 25th revolution five months later, Ultras Alhawy issued a statement that the group would not be present at the demonstrations as a collective. However, group members were told they should take part if they personally wanted to do so. The attitude among the Ultras White Knights was similar. In spite of their official statements, both Ultras Groups would play a significant role in the revolution.
During the February 2nd ‘Battle of the Camels’, members of both groups protected the protesters in Tahir Square against Mubarak’s supporters. The battle is so-named as supporters of the Mubarak regime rode into the square on camels with the intention of attacking the protest groups. It was reported that three people died during this attack whilst several hundred were injured. This event is considered an important catalyst towards the President’s resignation a few days later.
After 30 years, the Mubarak regime was over. What was next? The Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces took control and they had not forgotten the role the Ultras played in the uprising. Now seen as the voice of the people, the groups posed a significant threat to those in power. From the off, the SCAF sought to quash the power of both factions.
A year on from the scenes at Tahir Square, Egypt and the world would witness one of the most fatal footballing disasters of all time. During an away game against Al Masry, in the city of Port Said, travelling fans of Al Ahly were attacked in the stands.
The circumstances of the assault are still largely unknown and the evidence is muddled. It has never been determined who exactly the attacking group were or where they came from. Despite the presence of army and police, over 70 Ahly fans, many of whom were members of Ultra Ahlawy, were killed and dozens more injured.
The belief amongst the Ah Ahly and wider football supporting community in Egypt is that this was a police/security forces set-up. The Ultras believed this was the state’s way of stamping their authority.
Over the next few years, several incidents of tension between the Ultras & the police would follow. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t take long for another large-scale tragedy to occur. On the 8th February 2015, 20 Zamalek fans were killed as a result of confrontation with the police at the gates of the 30th June Stadium. Again, the exact details and cause of the disaster remain unknown.
Similar to the Port Said stadium tragedy, Ultras White Knights have their own theory: Prior to the game, Zamalek President Mortada Mansour declared that entry would be ‘’free of charge’’ and the Ultras believe his was carried out to deliberately create a huge congregation at the gates of the stadium.
Tensions rose between Zamalek Supporters and the police when they could not enter the ground which kicked off the chaos that resulted in the death of 20 Zamalek fans. Mansour however blamed the event on the behaviour of the Ultras and used this as justification to outlaw the group.
The events ultimately led to branding of all Ultras Groups as terrorist organisations. The state would begin to put their foot down. Thousands of football supporters and key members of the Ultras groups were imprisoned. while football games behind closed doors became the norm.
The year 2018 turned out to be significant for Egyptian football: Mohammed Salah played a key role in Liverpool’s path to the UEFA Champions League final, becoming a global icon and capturing the imagination of the nation. Egypt’s also national team took part in the World Cup finals for the first time in over 30 years.
The country had gone football mad but the year would also mark a significant event domestically. Both the Ultras Ahlawy & the Ultras White Knights officially disbanded.
After 11 years, the life of the Ultras had come to an end. Despite their brief existence, they had left their mark on both Egypt’s political and football culture, when the lines between both had blurred. Under what circumstances might we see their return?
You can find more of Conor’s work at through-the-turnstiles.com or on Instagram @thoughtheturnstiles.
A particular piece of work inspired this article, Ronnie Close’s ‘Cairo’s Ultras: Resistance and Revolution in Egypt’s Football Culture’. If you would like to learn more about this topic, I can recommend this piece of literature as your starting point. Another source of info and inspiration was the YouTube documentary ‘Egypt’s Ultras’, published by TRT World, a Turkish State International News Channel.
Images: Ultras White Knights Facebook, Wikipedia