EGYPT: Ultras in Egypt: state, revolution, and the power of public space (Part II)
by Connor T. Jerzak
From subversive to revolutionary
Uprisings in Tunisia provided the spark for the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Much media and scholarly attention has focused on the role of middle class youths and social networking technologies in the Revolution (Aitamurto 2011; Howard and Hussain 2011). Fewer commentators noted the crucial but unexpected role of Ultra groups. Indeed, Ultra groups became a surprisingly central protagonist in the Egyptian Revolution by bringing their organizational unity, fighting experience, and rebellious ethos to demonstrations. As they played a central role in the Revolution, Ultras became increasingly politicized, seeking to eliminate the presence of the authoritarian state in public space through large-scale demonstrations. After all, as Egyptian blogger Alla Abd El Fattah stated in a 2011 interview, “The Ultras have played a more significant role” in the Egyptian Revolution “than any political group on the ground” (Zirin 2012b).
From the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution, Ultra members supported demonstrators on Tahrir Square and around Egypt, safeguarding protesters and clashing with security forces. For instance, an anonymous video uploaded to YouTube on January 22nd reassured Egyptians who intended to join the first protests on the 25th (Shawky 2012). The video encouraged Egyptians who might have feared the police presence by noting that Ultra members would be in attendance to protect protesters. And, true to this promise, Ultras did join protesters on the January 25th demonstrations. During these early demonstrations, Ultra groups appeared most prominently on Wasr Al-Aini Street (El-Wardani 2011). Shortly after these first protests, Ultra members expanded their reach in the Bulaq, Guiza, and Shubra neighborhoods (El-Wardani 2011). The first member killed in the Revolution died in Alexandria on January 28th. The second member killed, Mohamad Makwa, died in Suez, later on the 28th (El-Wardani 2011).
Originally, Ultra members joined the 2011 demonstrators as private individuals, meeting randomly on Tahrir Square and in similar squares throughout Egypt. As one participant stated,
Most of our guys met randomly in Tahrir Square after fighting with police on the first day. And the next day, after we’d all been forced out, we got together with some Ultras from another team, attacking the police just to tire them out. Two days later we took the square back for good. And we fought in the ‘Camel Battle’ the next week. (Dorsey 2012b)
After police brutality increased following initial demonstrations, most Ultras decided to join protesters (El-Sherif 2012): rival Ultra groups came together to act towards the common objective of dismantling Mubarak’s repressive regime. This type of collective action is rare in Ultras’ history. As Beshir, stated in an interview,
It’s safe to say that 80% of the Egyptian population doesn’t know anything about politics, and the same goes for the Ultras. The Ultras stand out because they are a sizable group, but they are not really unified when it comes to politics. Some members might be from all across the political spectrum, others are completely apathetic. Some participate in demos [demonstrations], others don’t…They only appear as one body when they all agree on one thing, which happens very seldom. (Tarek 2012)
Thus, the Egyptian Revolution became one of the few instances where competing Ultra groups took some form of collective action, bolstering demonstrations in public squares around Egypt.
After they agreed to join demonstrations, Ultras helped immobilize police and security forces through their organizational unity and resistance tactics. As soccer writer David Levy noted, Ultras confronted security forces with tactical specializations that enabled them to resist the well-equipped security forces (Dorsey 2011). Ultra groups assigned rock hurlers, formed crews to find projectiles, and also designated some members to turn over and torch vehicles to create defensive structures (“Cyclones of Struggle,” 2011). These tactical specializations enabled Ultra members to weaken security forces in strategic and coordinated fighting. Ultra groups also mastered attack and defense tactics to minimize losses while sustaining active resistance against security forces (El-Sherif 2012). Indeed, as discussed earlier, Ultras are sophisticated organizations that rely on partly centralized, partly decentralized structures. This quasi-horizontal arrangement gave Ultras a combination of group unity and strategic flexibility during clashes with state forces.
Examining one of the Ultras’ first collective actions can highlight the dynamics of their protest tactics. Ultras came together for the Friday of Rage demonstrations on January 28th. In the hours prior to this demonstration, Mubarak had severed Internet access across Egypt and continued to defy protesters’ demands for him to resign (El-Amrani 2011). To prepare for demonstrations, Ultra members led twenty smaller groups of front-line activists to Tahrir Square. Ultra leaders guided these units separately to avoid being noticed before arriving. According to one participant, “On our own, it was nothing. But together as a group in the Square we were a big power… 10,000-15,000 people fighting without any fear. The Ultras were the leaders of the battle” (Montague 2011). These Ultra-led groups converged on Tahrir Square, using specialized crews to resist the well-equipped security forces and confront these forces with coordinated strategies.
Indeed, Ultras played a key role in the revolution not only because of their strong organizational structures, but also because they had experience challenging police forces through coordinated fighting—skills that few other protesters possessed. After all, in 2011, some Egyptians were protesting for the first time. Also, while other demonstrators were affiliated with organizations such as the April 6 Youth Movement and had experienced police brutality in prior demonstrations, Ultras had more knowledge about confronting the police with active methods (Hassan 2010). Accordingly, Ultras played a crucial role in the Egyptian Revolution particularly because of their experience resisting the police, a skill that few other groups in Egypt possessed.
However, Ultras contributed more than their group unity and experience fighting the police to the demonstrations of the Egyptian Revolution. Indeed, as El-Sherif (2012) outlined, Ultras contributed at least six intangible qualities to demonstrations. For El-Sherif, Ultras added dynamism, flexibility, positivity, a refusal of traditionalism, a group mentality, and a rebellious attitude to the Revolution. Taken together, these intangible characteristics helped infuse protesters with the motivation and enthusiasm necessary to participate in dangerous police clashes.
According to El-Sherif, Ultras’ resilient dynamism originated from the intense, emotional attachments Ultra members have to their teams. Indeed, Ultra members aim to support their teams in the face of both victory and defeat. Second, Ultras’ horizontal flexibility enabled them to maintain active resistance while minimizing losses and avoiding infighting between members. Third, Ultras’ positivity infused demonstrations with energy and enthusiasm in clashes with police forces. Underlying this positive attitude was Ultras’ experience cheering their teams. Fourth, Ultras defy social and cultural norms. They regularly criticize the traditional policies of clubs and reject cultural standards viewed as oppressive. For example, Ultras have fought rules on obscene language and restrictions on the attendance of women at matches (El-Sherif 2012). Fifth, the group mentality of Ultras gave them legitimacy in clashes with the security forces. Ultra members and leaders remain anonymous, ensuring that Ultras act as collective units and not for one leader’s profit. Lastly, Ultras’ spirit of rebellion helped mobilize protesters during police clashes. Bringing these six characteristics, Ultras’ soccer experiences shaped their political subjectivities and, in the 2011 protests, helped Ultras galvanize other demonstrators.
While Ultras contributed these intangible factors, the Egyptian Revolution influenced Ultra groups by increasing their explicitly political nature. As explained earlier, individual Ultra members would sometimes make political statements prior to the Revolution. Also, the autonomous character of Ultra groups made them inherently subversive in the context of Mubarak’s authoritarianism. Yet during the Egyptian Revolution, Ultra groups took more direct political positions.
For example, before the Revolution, Ultra chants were often about soccer. During and after the Revolution, however, these chants became openly political. Ultra chants honored members who died in police confrontations (Dale 2012), condemned the security forces, and criticized leading political and military figures (Lindsey 2011). In an example of this politicization, one popular chant during the Revolution linked the brutality of police forces with state corruption:
He [the police officer] was always a loser, a jest/he barely got 50% on his high-school test/with a bribe the rich kid’s a fool no more/got 100 diplomas hanging on his door/You crows nesting in our house/why are you ruining all our fun?/We won’t do as you tell us/Spare us your face/Cook up your case/That’s what the Interior does/I’m arrested and charged as a terrorist/Just for holding a flare and singing Ahly. (Lindsey 2011)
As this chant shows, some Ultra members perceived that police and military leaders—those with status and secure employment—were the true “losers,” not ordinary Ultra members. That is, Ultra members resented the police not only for their brutality, but also for their corruption and unearned privileges. In this way, Ultra groups became increasingly politicized in reaction to police brutality and their perceptions of injustice.
Still, this politicization is not uniform within and between Ultra groups. For instance, Ultras with anarchist leanings claimed that their participation in the Revolution was purely non-political. As one White Knight leader claimed, Ultras “don’t give a fuck about politics of the stability of the country. Zamalek is our country and Ahly is their country” (Lindsey 2011). Indeed, Ultra groups did and continue to encompass a wide range of ideological persuasions. By and large, however, the Egyptian Revolution politicized many Ultra members who fought to eliminate the Egyptian state’s repressive presence in public space.
In short, during the Revolution, Ultra groups became increasingly politicized as members resisted police forces and supported other protesters. More directly political, Ultras undermined the legitimacy Mubarak’s repressive regime by exposing how it sought to use violence to dominate public space. Indeed, although Ultras struggled against police forces in public spaces throughout Egypt, they did so most visibly in Tahrir Square—perhaps the grandest embodiment of public space in all of the country.
Source: Interface Journal