EGYPT: Ultras in Egypt: state, revolution, and the power of public space (Part I)
by Connor T. Jerzak1
In this article, I explore the relationship between organized soccer fans—Ultras—and the Egyptian state. I argue that Ultra groups became politicized as they sought autonomy in public space, but faced resistance from Egyptian security forces. To make this argument, I trace the history of Ultra groups. I show how Ultras made relatively few political statements in the first years after their 2007 inception. However, these groups become increasingly politicized in reaction to police harassment. This harassment was motivated by the fact that Ultras subverted state control over public spaces. The events of the 2011 Arab Spring further politicized the Ultras and transformed them into revolutionary actors by giving them the opportunity to delegitimize the authoritarian state’s entire presence in public space. However, the greater public visibility of Ultras came at a cost, partially fracturing Ultra groups and giving state forces a desire for retaliation that was realized in the Port Said massacre. Despite these challenges, Ultra groups have continued to seek autonomy in public spaces, protesting authoritarian tendencies in the post-Mubarak era. I conclude with an afterward, explaining how Ultras not only defy authoritarianism in Egypt, but also dominant narratives about Egyptian society.
In Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, several forces within the state competed for power and privileges against other state actors such as the military and the surveillance agency (Amar 2011). However, in everyday life, most Egyptians interacted with Mubarak’s state via the police in public space. Indeed, the police apparatus controlled public spaces and expressions throughout Egypt. Even basic expressions of dissent were illegal under Mubarak’s rule (Perkins 2010) and, to an extent, have remained so even after the revolutionary upheavals of 2011. As police suppressed dissent through verbal and physical harassment, fear and humiliation pervaded public spaces (Ismail 2012; Winegar 2012). The seemingly apolitical realm of public space was managed and controlled to retain the legitimacy of Mubarak’s state apparatus. But all actors within Egyptian society did not acquiesce to these authoritarian mechanisms. In an unexpected fashion, sport and politics coalesced as organized soccer fans—Ultras—contested police control over civic expressions. In this article, I explore the role of these Ultras before, during, and after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, with a particular focus on their relation to the state via public space.
I argue that Ultra groups became increasingly politicized as they sought autonomy and visibility in public space, but faced opposition to this autonomy from state mechanisms both during and after Mubarak’s regime. Before the Egyptian Revolution, Ultra members made relatively few political statements. However, these groups became politicized through confrontations with the police, the state’s chief representatives in the public arena. The Egyptian Revolution deepened Ultras’ political involvement, giving these groups the ambition and opportunity to confront the authoritarian state’s entire presence in the public sphere. In the post-revolutionary context, many Ultra members continued to seek civic autonomy by opposing the authoritarian tendencies of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and President Mohamed Morsi. However, Ultra groups have had difficulty maintaining unity in this context due to their growing popularity and controversies surrounding the Port Said massacre. In the end, Egypt’s Ultras defy dominant narratives implied by both the Western media and Egyptian leaders. They therefore enable us, as observers, to perceive the rich possibilities and unexpected political subjectivities that can emerge in democratic movements.
Ultras under Mubarak
Soccer has a long history in Egypt, having first appeared in 1882 when British soldiers organized matches with their Egyptian counterparts (“History of the Egyptian football game,” n.d.). However, Ultra groups emerged very recently in the country. Even though most Ultras in Egypt were not explicitly political in the 2000s, they became politicized to the extent that they sought social autonomy, but experienced pushback from Mubarak and police forces. Ultras challenged these authoritarian mechanisms while sharing an ethos of resistance and cultivating a strong sense of collectivity.
The Egyptian Ultras movement began in 2005. It stated via the Internet, as a network of soccer fan forums (Shawky 2012). Leaders converted these virtual groups into full-fledged Ultra organizations in 2007, inspired by the Ultra clubs of Italy. However, the political tendencies of the two movements vary considerably because Italian Ultras generally have rightist tendencies whereas Egyptian Ultras have anti-authoritarian leanings (Dunmore 2007). Indeed, Egypt’s Ultras do not conform to sporting culture around the world, which is generally either apolitical or conservative (Mustafa 2013). Notwithstanding these differences, European and Egyptian Ultras share an ethos of intentional commitment directed towards their respective clubs. Ultras from both regions also exert a powerful physical presence at matches, an enthusiasm that sometimes spills over into small-scale brawls between rival fans (Kuhn 2011).
Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knights were among the first Ultra groups in Egypt and later become the two largest and most visible Ultra organizations (Dunmore 2007; Mazhar 2009). Soccer enthusiasts founded Ultras Ahlawy to support Cairo-based Club Ah-Ahly, while other fans formed Ultras White Knights to support Giza-based Club Zamalek, the second most successful Egyptian team after Club Ah-Ahly. Historically, Club Ah-Ahly and Club Zamalek have had a heated rivalry, a friction that still endures between Ultras White Knights and Ultras Ahlawy. This rivalry demonstrates how Ultras support different teams and, as a result, do not comprise a homogenous group. Indeed, from their 2007 inception onwards, Ultras occasionally engaged in fistfights with rival Ultras over game results, fomenting early hostilities between groups (Dorsey 2008).
Despite divisions and rivalries between Ultras, these groups nevertheless have similar attitudes, tactics, and motivations. For example, Ultra leaders founded their organizations in reaction against the perceived feebleness of other fan clubs. According to these founders, other fan clubs were more concerned about gaining prestige from talking with players or the media than supporting their teams (Dorsey 2008). In turn, Ultra leaders hoped to avoid the alleged vanity of these fan clubs by cultivating selflessness and group enthusiasm among Ultras (Dorsey 2008). In addition, Ultra founders and members also resented the commercialization of soccer, which, according to them, betrayed average fans and the original spirit of soccer (Dunmore 2007). Consequently, an early tension emerged between Ultra groups and the management of their respective clubs. For example, Club Ah-Ahly has retained a distance towards Ultras Ahlawy, refusing Ultra requests to use Cairo International Stadium to prepare for choreography displays (Dunmore 2007). And, just as clubs can be suspicious of Ultra groups, Ultras remain distrustful of club management: Ultra groups have regularly opposed increases in ticket prices and the monopolization of soccer broadcasts (Colla, Gumbiner, and Abouali 2012; Mazhar 2009). In this way, Ultra members resent the commercialization of profit-seeking soccer clubs even as they simultaneously remain committed to an idealized identity of their teams. Ultras thus share a sense of intentional commitment to team identity that is defined in opposition to profit-seeking clubs and less committed fans.
While Ultras oppose soccer commercialization and the perceived laxness of other fans, team pride unites members from diverse backgrounds, transcending (but not always excluding) ethnicity, religion, and regional identity. Mohamed Gamal Beshir (2012), an expert on the Egyptian Ultras and himself a (covert) Ultra leader, describes how Ultras instill such pride in young men. Poetically, he writes how
Your eyes cannot miss an ultra, whether inside or outside the stadium. By nature, he is proud, aware of his importance among the rest of his people who respect him for his capabilities. He walks with his head up high…doesn’t talk much…and he never befriends fans of other football teams. (quoted in Shawky 2012)
In this passage, Beshir depicts how Ultra members gain pride from discipline, team commitment, and the collective nature of their Ultra groups. As we will later see, this collective pride, in the context of Mubarak’s authoritarianism, forged a subversive form of political agency and subjectivity that disturbed state control over public space.
While the collective pride of Ultra groups is evident, the class character of Ultras remains a more complex issue. Indeed, arriving at definitive conclusions regarding Ultras’ class character is particularly difficult given the secrecy of Ultra groups. Nevertheless, some trends are discernable. For example, commentators such as Rabab El-Mahdi (2012) downplay class distinctions within Ultras groups, claiming that they are often cross-class organizations. For El-Mahdi, these organizations unify the educated and illiterate, the rich and poor, arguing that no single class or educational trait unifies Ultra members. While El-Mahdi is right to claim that no single characteristic unites all members, Ultra groups may reflect some class divisions. For example, according to Amr Kamal, an Egyptian sports critic, Ultra leaders generally tend to be well educated and come from upper middle class families (Mazhar 2009). These leaders are familiar with Ultra groups in Europe and have modeled Egyptian Ultras from these groups. Broadly speaking, then, Ultra groups contain members from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, but leaders tend to be better-educated than other members.
Although these class distinctions sometimes exist, they do not generally influence the central attitudes of Ultra groups, which consistently cultivate a class-conscious ethos of resistance. For instance, Ultras occupy the seats directly behind the goalkeeper—the cheapest tickets available—to enable the widest attendance possible (Solayman 2012). Moreover, as one Ahlawy leader known as Assad stated in an interview,
Soccer is bigger than politics. It’s about escapism. The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law, and five kids. He is paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes to the stadium and watches Ahly. People suffer, but when Ahly wins they smile. (Dorsey 2012a)
Here, the working class dimension of soccer enthusiasm is apparent: Ultra groups bring together young and sometimes underprivileged men into disciplined organizations, giving these youths an opportunity to form community ties through soccer. These ties are further strengthened by police harassment (Tarek 2012), which bonds Ultra members by reinforcing their ethos of collective resistance. In this way, class differences between members do not seem to fragment Ultras’ central attitudes: Ultras consistently embody an ethos of resistance even though these organizations include members from diverse educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Although Ultra groups have a consistent set of central attitudes, individual fans may perceive their Ultra membership in various ways. For example, some members define their participations with reference to anarchism, claiming that they joined Ultra groups to become involved in clashes with police. On the whole, these members may tend to be better-educated and are familiar with European anarchists (Lindsey 2011). In contrast, other members cite soccer as the primary reason they joined Ultra groups (Tarek 2012). However, because team affinity unites Ultra members across ideological lines, these tendencies are two among many. Indeed, team pride limits the influence of any one ideology and supports the unity of Ultra groups despite members’ socioeconomic, educational, and ideological differences. Also, as one Ultra member stated,
There are no leaders among us — but there are organizational individuals who manage meetings and help guide the younger members. There is no hierarchy — organizers within the group are simply people with wisdom; as long as you have expertise in something, or a realistic idea, and, most importantly, a strong sense of humanity. (El-Nabawi 2012)
Accordingly, Ultra leaders advocate for horizontal structures that further limit the influence of any single ideology, balancing groups’ central attitudes and members’ diverse beliefs. In practice, Ultras groups are not perfectly horizontal, but combine elements of centralized and decentralized leadership. For instance, Ultra groups have centralized leadership committees that coordinate with regional subgroups through meetings with local representatives (Mustafa 2013). Indeed, it is easy to underestimate the sophistication of Ultras’ organizational structures because members remain secretive. However, despite this qualification, Ultras’ quasi-horizontal structures do help reinforce group attitudes and soften divisive issues among members with diverse ideological leanings.
Because Ultra groups united enthusiastic members, they quickly gained influence in the world of Egyptian soccer. For example, Ultras Ahlawy had only about 55 members during its first year, but the group prided itself on its selectivity and the large effects it could make with small numbers (Dunmore 2007). To generate large effects, Ultras Ahlawy members performed choreographed dances in stadiums during games, recited chants, and displayed tifos (banners). These tifos were large—50 by 30 feet—and often contained inspirational messages (Dunmore 2007). Tifos later commemorated Ultra members who died in clashes with police and indirectly carried political messages such as “We Are Egypt” (Dunmore 2007). Taken together, these various tactics gave Ultra groups a powerful physical presence in stadiums and public squares across Egypt, since, as mentioned above, some Ultra organizations have braches situated in cities spread throughout the country (Mustafa 2013). Ultras’ organizational structures helped Ultras create such effects by giving eager members opportunities to organize events under the coordination of centralized leaders.
Although Ultras focused on coordinating fan spectacles prior to 2011, some members occasionally made statements on political issues. For instance, several White Knight members made controversial remarks about Palestine, the Egyptian state, and the stagnant economy prior to the Revolution, leading to several arrests (Totah 2012). Also, a 2009 soccer riot foreshadowed Ultras’ later politicization in the Egyptian Revolution. In this incident, Egyptian soccer fans attacked the Algerian national team bus and the Algerian embassy. While it is unclear how many Ultra members participated in this riot, the police confrontations prefigured those of the Egyptian Revolution. Media analysts reported that the violence, although tied to a soccer rivalry, stemmed in part from resentment against political repression and high levels of unemployment (Montague 2012a). Still, it is important to avoid overemphasizing the political involvement of Ultra members in the years prior to the Egyptian Revolution. Indeed, Ultra members who made political statements prior to 2011 did so largely as individuals, not as group representatives.
Furthermore, during this tenure, Mubarak attempted to manipulate soccer enthusiasm to legitimize his regime, complicating the political dimension of Ultra organizations. Indeed, Mubarak used soccer spectacles to appeal to Egyptians and divert attention from his regime’s negative effects (Panja and El-Tablawy 2012). He also often met with players of the Egyptian National Team and made congratulatory remarks after notable matches (“Mubarak receives,” 2010). And, in 2006, Mubarak’s son, Gamal, even talked at the National Democratic Party (NDP) Conference about promoting Egyptian soccer (Slackman and El-Naggar, 2006). These actions show how Mubarak sought to distract young men from political issues by focusing their attention on soccer.
However, even though Ultras made relatively few political statements prior to 2011 and Mubarak attempted to manipulate soccer enthusiasm, the social character of Ultra organizations made them, in a way, inherently political. That is, Ultras remained autonomous organizations, creating politically charged graffiti and planning independent choreographies, performances, and demonstrations. In these acts, Ultras asserted group autonomy in public space, a fact that challenged the control of the state in these spaces.
By seeking autonomy in public spaces and stadiums, Ultra members reacted against the fear and humiliation that characterized everyday life under Mubarak. As Ismail (2012) has noted, in Egypt’s authoritarian context, the police disciplined citizens in public space through extensive surveillance, physical intimidation, and degrading verbal abuse. Thus, according to Ismail, ordinary Egyptians felt humiliation in everyday encounters with the police, which, for them, came to represent the repressive state. However, by asserting autonomy and group pride, Ultra organizations interrupted this pattern of humiliation. As one Ultra explained, “The whole concept of any independent organization didn’t exist, not unions, not political parties [sic]. Then we started to organize football ultras…to them [the police] it was the youth, in big numbers—very smart people—who could mobilize themselves quickly” (Montague 2012c). To give Ultras such autonomy against Mubarak’s state, these groups relied on self-funding. For example, Ultra groups have designed t-shirts, mugs, flags, medals, and others products to raise money and eliminate the need for powerful state patrons (but, in the process, contributing to the very commercialization that these groups have, at times, resented; Solayman 2012). In general, then, Ultra members made relatively few political statements prior to 2011, but these organizations became subversive insofar they sought social autonomy and rejected the culture of humiliation that characterized the public sphere under Mubarak. In this way, Ultras “politics of fun” subverted Mubarak’s state and its police apparatus (El-Sherif 2012).
Because Ultras asserted autonomy in public stadiums and squares, state forces reacted violently against these groups in an effort to limit their visibility and notoriety. Indeed, police forces confronted Ultra organizations even when these groups were young and relatively marginal (Dunmore 2007) because they nevertheless threatened the control of the police in civic space. As Ultras gained popularity, police repression further increased. For example, starting in 2008 and increasing in 2009, police began confiscating Ultra banners, megaphones, and flares at stadium entrances (which some Ultra members would smuggle in anyway; Mazhar 2009). The police also began arresting Ultra members the day before or after notable matches (Mazhar 2009). When Ultra members did voice clear political positions, police forces quickly suppressed them, illustrating how Ultras’ visibility in the public sphere made state forces especially sensitive to their political remarks. For example, after White Knight members demonstrated in memory of the second Palestinian Intifada, police arrested these members and held them for several days (El-Wardani 2011). Contrary to police intentions, however, this intensifying harassment further politicized Ultras organizations, which began to identity resistance against the police as a key component of Ultra character. Indeed, police aggravation unified Ultras under the collective slogan, “A.C.A.B” (“All Cops Are Bastards”), forging links and solidarity between rival Ultras (Totah 2012). Harassment from the state deepened Ultras’ political involvement by provoking resentment and giving diverse Ultra organizations a common enemy—the security forces. During Mubarak’s tenure, in other words, police repression and Ultras’ activism formed a self-reinforcing cycle.
For these factors, Egypt’s Ultras had a subversive edge before the Egyptian Revolution. As they combined organizational unity, team enthusiasm, and an ethic of rebellion, Ultras challenged the supremacy of the authoritarian state in public spaces. They sought social autonomy and, as a result, became increasingly antagonistic with security forces. But, as we shall see, the Egyptian Revolution transformed aspects of the Ultras, further politicizing these groups and giving members the opportunity to challenge the existence of the authoritarian state itself.
1 I am thankful for the helpful comments of three anonymous reviewers, and also for the guidance of Richard Pithouse during the peer-review process. Needless to say, all errors and omissions are mine.
Source: Interface: a journal for and about social movements Volume 5 (2): 240 – 262 (November 2013)