02/9/15

On the Front Line: The Political Battle Continues for Egypt’s Ultras

white-knights-ultras-egypt

While the political turmoil in Egypt continues, expect the ultras to be on the front-line.

The death of Egyptian football fans on Sunday evening in Cairo is likely to reinvigorate the protests of football ultras, one of Egypt’s largest social movements who have already proved they are capable of challenging the state through public protest.

The hardcore fan group of Zamalek SC, the Ultras White Knights, described the violence against supporters at an Egyptian Premier League game as a “deliberate massacre.” How the events unfolded remains unclear, yet reports indicate violence erupted after police fired teargas and shotgun pellets at supporters trying to force their way into Zamalek SC’s Air Defence Stadium.

Death toll estimates have varied. State television announced 22 were found dead in the events preceding the game between Zamalek SC and ENPPI (Engineering for the Petroleum and Process Industries), while on the official Facebook page of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the fans themselves claimed 28 had died. The incident is just the latest outbreak of violence which has seen security forces and football supporters clash with fatal consequences.

Having already explored the politicisation of football ultras across the globe in an article for Football Beyond Borders, this recent bout of violence in Egypt conflates a number of issues. The tragedy bears striking similarity to that of the politically charged mass brawl in Port Said in 2012 during a game between Al Masry and another Cairo based club, Al Ahly. On that occasion 74 supporters died, and then as now, the antipathy between the state and football fans is threatening to cement irreparable divisions in Egyptian society.

The Egyptian revolution is crucial to an understanding of these episodes. In January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians spilled into the streets calling for an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. It was the Cairo-based ultras of Al Ahly (Ultras Al Ahlawy) and Zamalek SC (UWK) that, despite their virulent rivalry, united to confront Mubarak’s security forces. As James Dorsey explains, “they were in a sense the shock troops of the revolution.” Their insurgence continued in the subsequent protests against Mubarak’s military successor, Mohamed Morsi, as well as during anti-government demonstrations against the rise of Egypt’s current president, Mr. Al Sisi. As such, both Port Said and Sunday night’s events were undoubtedly underpinned by complex political machinations.

Three years ago, while the ultras of home side, Al Masry, fought fans of Al Ahly, the police either watched passively or even joined the violence. Authorities blamed the subsequent deaths on supporters from Al Masry, however the Ultras Al Ahlawy believed the security forces used the game in Port Said to exact revenge on those who had played a vital role in toppling the Mubarak regime. Sunday night’s tragedy follows the same story line.

The interior ministry has blamed Zamalek’s ultras for Sunday’s deaths, claiming they were the result of a stampede sparked by police attempts to stop fans from entering the stadium without tickets. UWK, however, believe this was another act of calculated state vengeance motivated by their role in previous pro-democracy protests. Patrick Kinglsey, the Guardian’s Egyptian correspondent, reported that many witnesses said the police’s attack was brutal and unprovoked.

The incident occurred just days after the Egyptian government lifted the ban on supporters attending all domestic football matches, a measure introduced after the events at Port Said. These latest clashes triggered the suspension of the Egyptian Premier League indefinitely. Should the government re-impose a spectator ban, this would only serve to further stoke the fires of unrest.  In recent months, the UWK have also come to blows with Zamalek’s president, Mortada Mansour, who has campaigned to outlaw the clubs ultras as a terrorist organisation. He is thought to have the tacit support of president Al Sisi.

The continued oppression of the ultras appears a clear attempt by Mr. Al Sisi’s government to criminalise protest. Sunday’s bloody clashes certainly demonstrate their continued use of police brutality to quash agitators and opponents. The figures speak for themselves. Since Mr. Al Sisi seized power from the Morsi government, more than 1,000 people have been killed in clashes with state authorities.

Any government, particularly those that are totalitarian, will not welcome large gatherings of young people in already socially volatile spaces such as football stadia. Events such as those witnessed in Cairo emphasise the political clout football supporters carry. This has been seen in other countries such as Ukraine and Turkey in which hardcore fan groups have also been heavily involved in political activism.

As such football ultras are regarded as a veritable threat to the hegemony of Egypt’s autocratic government. But the draconian measures aimed at repressing the ultras only serves to accentuate their sense unity against the state. The 2011 revolution has shown it’s neither an effective means of consolidating power nor a solution to quelling social unrest.

This inflammatory rhetoric is threatening to polarise an already disillusioned youth, a youth that has used the football stadium as a 21st century agora in which to protest and dissent. In the last year, members of the Ultras Nahdawy (Renaissance Ultras) led student protests on university campuses against Mr. Al Sisi’s dictatorial regime, advocating academic and other freedoms. Composed of former UWK and Ultras Ahlawy members, it is the only militant football group to openly declare its politicisation while not being aligned to a specific football club.

This is significant. Football is becoming a powerful means to a political end. At this rate the siege mentality adopted by both parties is leaving an environment ripe for another popular rebellion. Don’t be surprised if it’s Egypt’s ultras on the front-line once again.

@LH_Ramon25

02/26/14

Football Supporters and Political Protests: A Future Trend?

A demonstrator holds up a flare during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government in Tunis

The world is undergoing a period of historic transition. Times are rapidly changing and many feel insecure and angry. The worst economic depression since the 1930’s has taken its toll. People are no longer willing to idly sit by and let the politicians decide their future. They have taken to the streets to voice their discontent with the economic, political and social state of affairs in their countries. The unrest in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, Venezuela and Ukraine are just are few of the recent examples.

On the Channel 4 news, a man from the Donetsk region (a staunch pro-Russian area of Eastern Ukraine) gave insight into why he opposed a move toward the Europeanisation of Ukraine.

“On February the 1st the demonstration for the legalisation of bestiality in Berlin, I heard there are 100,000 people practicing bestiality in Germany.” He continued.

“In Lithuania they were only seven votes short of passing a law where 6-year-olds would learn not only about sex between men and women but also homosexuality.”

Having watched the interview the man’s scathing attack on the Germans felt slightly reminiscent of the irrational fervour that swept Europe during the 1930’s. Since when have the Germans been known for bestiality? He portrayed them as inferior animals who indulge in these backward practices, much like the blood libel that was sporadically perpetrated throughout the Middle-Ages and 20th century in Europe. This was coupled with archaic views on sexuality; however the man made no coherent economic or political argument for why Ukraine should move towards the East and Russia. It was a bizarre justification for the rejection of the European Union and a worrying one at that.

The man and his compatriots were also wearing orange and black ribbons on their coats. They appeared to be a badge of identity and far from being an expert on Ukraine and Eastern Europe I initially associated the colours with the city’s biggest football club – FC Shakhtar Donetsk. However having consulted Manuel Veth, a Phd student researching economics and politics of Soviet and post-Soviet football, he informed me that the orange and black tassels were actually the ribbons of St George. These ribbons constitute one of the most recognised and respected symbols of military valour in modern Russia. However my supposition that they were connected to football supporters may not be a coincidence.

There are striking similarities between many of the aforementioned protests. One recurring theme which deserves further scrutiny is the role of organised football supporters within the demonstrations in Egypt, Turkey and Ukraine.

The politicisation of organised fans or Ultras is well-documented. On occasion this has led to the dissemination of deplorable political views within the football stadia. However while these organised groups are infamous for their tendency towards mindless chaos, the recent global turmoil has demonstrated the social and political sway they hold. The fiercest of rivals have, if only momentarily, put their differences aside and united in a cause which goes far beyond the echelons of football support.

 Ukraine – Defenders of the right to protest

Protests quickly escalated in Ukraine with thousands taking to the streets. (Photo from http://www.businessinsider.com/)

Protests quickly escalated in Ukraine with thousands taking to the streets. (Photo from http://www.businessinsider.com/)

Parts of Ukraine have become a war-zone in the last couple of weeks and the most recent development has seen president Viktor Yanukovych ousted in what is increasingly looking like a bona fide revolution. One of the more idiosyncratic features of this insurrection has been the involvement of Ukrainian Ultras.

In a piece titled ‘Ukrainian Ultras and the Unorthodox Revolution’ on their blog – FutbolgradDavid McArdle and Manuel Veth state the Ultras are being portrayed by Western media as protectors of Euromaidan. In their words: “Rather than protesting per se they purport to be apolitical, merely protecting those who wish to express their dissent.”

The article acknowledges the Ultras have their own motivations for taking to the streets. These include battling government hired thugs – Titushky and the special forces of the police – Berkut. But they have also demonstrated a level of organisation and political awareness, advocating the right to freedom of speech. Even supporters of clubs in Eastern Ukraine (notoriously Pro-Russian) have in some cases opposed government forces fighting for the rights of the dissidents. The Ultras, like the wider population of Ukraine have grown weary of self-serving oligarchs.

Egypt – A Footballing Coup

Egyptian Ultras take to the street to protest. (Photo from http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.co.uk/)

Egyptian Ultras take to the street to protest. (Photo from http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.co.uk/)

“We always say that our revolution started in 2007 not 2011. Most of the group was thinking freedom all the way. We went down to the streets to be part of the revolution as Egyptian citizens, not as Ultras.”  Taken from the Channel 4 website, the quote is by Ahmed Gaffer a founding member of Al Ahly’s militant Ultra Group Al Ahlawy – soldiers of the Egyptian revolution.

In January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians spilled into the streets to call for an end to president Hosni Mubarak’s reign. During this period the football stadium was an outlet for popular discontent at a time when freedom of speech was highly curtailed. When the uprising began the fans simply took their defiance onto the streets. Historic differences between the Ultras of Cairo clubs Al Ahly (Ultras Al Ahlawy) and Zamalek (The Ultras White Knights) were put aside. James Dorsey, an academic who writes extensively on Football in the Middle East, summarised their role.

 “It was Ahly and Zamalek Ultras who led marches into Tahrir Square and in some areas, where security forces had blocked exits, it was Ultras who would stand on roofs and threw down Molotov cocktails.”

They defended protestors against the police and helped the people overcome their trepidation about challenging the regime. Mubarak eventually fell in February 2011. After the Port Said tragedy in 2012 there was a gradual political disengagement from the Ultras. Yet for a brief moment they had discovered that they could wield a political power by uniting, using their experience in defying authority for the benefit of change.

Turkey: Gezi Park and the Football Ultras

Turkish supporters united in Gezi Park protests against

Supporters from Turkish clubs Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce united in Gezi Park protests against Recep Tayyip Eerdogan’s regime. (Photo from uk.eurosport.yahoo.com)

Turkey tells a similar tale. In May, 2013, around 50 environmentalists began a protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to prevent its demolition. The initially peaceful protest provoked a ruthless response from the Turkish police and the protest quickly swelled with numbers in excess of 10,000.

Many Turkish football fans, especially Beşiktaş JK’s militant Ultra group Çarşi were already opposed to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government (The Justice and Development Party’s – AKP). The regimes introduction of restrictive measures on human rights combined with the oppressive police tactics used at Gezi Park saw Çarşi join the protesters. Yasmin Çongar  a writer on Turkish affairs  claims the Ultras were keen to share their experiences in dealing with tear gas with their Gezi Park compatriots, and they took a front line role shielding the demonstrators from police brutality.

More importantly the insurgent ardour helped achieve something which most sport commentators thought impossible. Just like in Egypt and Ukraine, this political maelstrom saw fans from rival clubs Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş unite. Although their influence did not extend to toppling a regime they played a pivotal role in opposing the government. In recent weeks trouble in Turkey has flared once again and Fenerbahçe supporters have been at the forefront of the largest anti-government demonstrations since the Gezi Park protests on Taksim Square back in 2013.

Football protests and defiance, a history and future

Football has long been a setting where views and opinions are rarely stymied. A trawl through history provides ample examples.

In the Communist, totalitarian state of Soviet Russia, Spartak Moscow (named after the Roman rebel Spartacus) represented a symbol of defiance against the state, who controlled Moscow’s biggest teams including Dynamo Moscow (run by secret police) and CSKA (the armies team). The Hungarian team of the 1950’s (the marvellous Magyars) led by their revolutionary talisman Ferenc Puskas, opened the eyes of a nation to the possibility of change from the rigid functionality of the apparatchik Matyas Rakosi’s regime.

In Nazi-Germany, Bayern Munich – a club with a Jewish president and Jewish manager  battled to survive during Hitler’s dictatorship. The club was persecuted for its Jewish links but Bayern became an outlet for resistance. Their players engaged in acts of defiance such as brawling with Nazi Brown Shirts and one player by the name of Willy Simetsreiter, went out of his way to have his picture taken with Jesse Owens.

 Bayern Munich honour ex Jewish president Kurt Landauer in a game vs. Eintracht Frankfurt. (Photo from http://www.101greatgoals.com/)

Bayern Munich honour ex Jewish president Kurt Landauer in a game vs. Eintracht Frankfurt. (Photo from http://www.101greatgoals.com/)

Today football supporters are uniting against what they see as an intransigent and inequitable hierarchy. These groups are not just a dishevelled bunch of hooligans, what makes them so powerful is that many of them are not mindless. I return to the man I sited earlier who expressed his views on Channel 4.

Are his views xenophobic? Certainly. Does he lack political consciousness? I doubt it. He represents the thousands of people who are uncomfortable with the changes in modern society. These ideas reflect insecurities about socially evolving issues such as national identity, race, and homosexuality etcetera.

Therein lies the risk attached to the mobilisation of Ultra groups. There is a reason why Ultras in these countries have been suppressed. As noble as their revolutionary causes, they have the power and potential to ignite a movement with much more sinister consequences, for example in Ukraine where fascist and white supremacist elements have been highly prominent in the recent uprising. It will be intriguing to observe how the role of the Ultras in the political grappling evolves.

We are witnessing a phenomenon that we can expect to see more of. Football is a game which mirrors the society in which it exists. In Brazil we have seen FIFA become a pariah due to the countries social and economic deficiencies. This in a country where one of their greatest ever World Cup winners, Ronaldo, proclaimed “football is in our blood.”

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading "Football is everything including gay" (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading “Football is everything including gay” (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

If football supporters can harness their involvement in politics and fight for positive, social reform, then the role of football in enacting social change could grow ever more relevant. Bayern Munich supporters provided the world with a perfect example when they unveiled a banner in a game against Eintracht Frankfurt this season reading “Fußball ist alles, auch schwul” (Football is everything, including gay).

Who knows people might look back at this period and pinpoint it as a moment of genuine change. Whether that will be for the better or for the worse only time will tell. However don’t be surprised if the role of football and its supporters becomes a leitmotif in this epoch of social and political transition.