One warm night in September, I sat in an outdoor café in Cairo’s Shubra neighborhood with a young member of the Ultras Ahlawy, an organization of hard-core fans of the Cairo soccer team Al Ahly. Mahmoud, a pseudonym, was a diminutive twenty-one-year-old with bulging biceps, a red athletic shirt, and gelled hair swept up in a James Dean pompadour. He pulled out a laptop computer and showed me a grainy video taken on February 1, 2012, documenting a tragedy that continues to trouble Egypt.
That night, at Port Said’s soccer stadium, some 125 miles from Cairo, a mob of fans surged across the field following the victory of the home team, Al Masry, over Al Ahly. Then they attacked the Cairo team’s supporters. Hundreds of Al Ahly fans, including many members of the Ultras, were thrown from the stadium’s top tiers, stabbed, asphyxiated, or crushed in tunnels as they tried to escape. Seventy-nine people died, all of them teenagers and young men. Mahmoud had narrowly missed getting on the train to Port Said that morning. He told me that “more than a dozen” of his friends had been killed.
It seemed at first like a spontaneous riot, but many suspected something more sinister. During the Egyptian revolution, Cairo’s Ultras Ahlawy had earned a reputation in the battle for Tahrir Square as indefatigable street fighters who had confronted the police, and often beaten them back, with stones and Molotov cocktails. Following the killings in Port Said, many Egyptians accused the police of complicity—allowing armed thugs to enter the stadium, then standing by as they attacked Al Ahly fans. Mahmoud had no doubt that the accusation was true. “The police wanted to get revenge on us, because we had been in the front lines of the revolution,” he told me.
The Port Said incident and its emotionally charged aftermath serve as a reminder of how politicized nearly every aspect of Egyptian life—even soccer—has become since the events of 2011. The killings are also presenting President Mohamed Morsi with one of his thorniest challenges as he struggles to restore stability after eighteen months of turbulence. After the deaths, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which was then ruling Egypt, moved swiftly to deal with nationwide expressions of grief and anger. The head of security in Port Said was removed from his post. Eighty-three people were arrested, and all are still in prison pending their long-delayed trial. The regime proclaimed that the seventy-nine who died were “martyrs” and said that their families would be entitled to the same death benefits as the families of those who had fallen during the revolution. It also suspended the remainder of the Egyptian League season.
For the Ultras, however, that wasn’t enough. Since September 17, the date the new soccer season was to begin, the Ultras have taken to the streets, vowing to protest until those responsible for what they call the “massacre” are punished. The fan club has broken up team practices and stormed the headquarters of the Egyptian Football Federation. They surrounded a hotel in Alexandria where the Al Ahly team was staying, forcing the players to leave from a back entrance to get to its match. (Only one player, captain and star striker and midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika, strongly supports the Ultras’ cause, so the Ultras are in the awkward position of opposing their own team.)
On September 26, hundreds of other Ultras Ahlawy occupied Cairo’s Media Production City, a state-owned center that remains in the hands of holdovers from the Mubarak regime. The Ultras stopped TV production for the day and demanded the resignations of two celebrity sportscasters who have denounced their organization. (The two broadcasters were Medhat Shalaby, a former police general, and Ahmed Shobeir, a former Al Ahly goalkeeper who served in Parliament for the then-ruling National Democratic Party.) “Both of them were enemies of the revolution,” Mahmoud said. The Egyptian Football Federation has recently announced that it will suspend the entire 2012–2013 football season until further notice.
The Ultras’ campaign has divided opinion in Egypt. Ahmed Sabea, director of media communications for Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, told me rather cautiously that the Ultras had a “beautiful Egyptian spirit” and “just cause,” but, he added, “they need to be directed.” Others are less equivocal: “They are thugs and hooligans. We just want things to go back to normal,” my taxi driver told me on the way in from Cairo Airport. “Sixty percent of Egyptians are with the Ultras, and forty percent are not,” I was told by Ahmed Roshdy, Mahmoud’s brother, a Cairo University graduate and Al Ahly fan, when we met in a café. All this, clearly, was an offhand estimate and not the result of any poll. Other Egyptians have said the Ultras are mainly an urban phenomenon, hardly known to many Egyptians, but able to dramatize themselves in the intensely partisan world of football fans.
Although the quality of Egyptian soccer is spotty—the national team, nicknamed the Pharaohs, has been ranked as high as ninth in the world by FIFA, but hasn’t been to the World Cup since 1990—its fans are noted for their passionate, and generally good-natured, support. The streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities often empty out during matches, such as those between the arch rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek. In June, the Pharaohs won a pair of qualifying matches against African teams, raising the strong prospect of a World Cup appearance in 2014. Commenting further on how the Ultras have divided the opinion of Egyptians, Ahmed Roshdy, the Al Ahly fan, told me: “The ones who are against them are saying, ‘guys, calm down, it’s time to start the season again, it’s money, it’s the economy.’ The rest say, ‘seventy-nine people died, and where is justice?’”
The Ultras first appeared in Egypt in 2007, modeled after the hard-core fan clubs of the Italian team AC Milan and similar clubs in Argentina and North Africa. The groups started without any discernible politics, raising money through the sale of T-shirts and other team-related paraphernalia. They used the funds to put on displays of fireworks, and to create elaborately illustrated banners that were unfurled during matches. “You travel, you follow your team, you cheer the whole ninety minutes, you are not expecting money from anyone, you devote your life to them,” I was told by Salim, also a pseudonym, an unemployed engineering graduate and a member of the Ultra White Knights, a group that supports Zamalek.
A lean, bearded twenty-three-year-old, Salim told me that the ability of the Ultras—whether Zamalek or Al Ahly—to mobilize a small army of young men angered Mubarak’s security forces. “When the regime realized how strongly organized we were, the hostility and war began,” he said. Signs began to appear at matches proclaiming “ACAB,” or “All Cops Are Bastards.” The Ultras’ leaders, known as capos (a term borrowed from Italian ultra groups), were arrested and thrown in jail.
As the confrontations intensified, chants took on an antigovernment cast. “Regime! Be very scared of us, we are coming tonight with intent,” went one. Al Ahly’s Ultras denounced corruption in Egypt’s education system and became increasingly outspoken about political issues, demanding, for example, the lifting of Israel’s siege of Gaza—an embarrassing reminder of the unpopular Camp David accords.
The regime struck back. Police frisked and strip- searched Ultras on their way into soccer stadiums, confiscating flags, T-shirts, and scarves. Mahmoud, the Al Ahly Ultra, showed me a montage of videos of police chasing Ultras through the stands, clubbing them, and hauling them away. Some of the Ultras’ actions—such as waving incendiary flares in packed stadiums—were certainly dangerous. But Ultras and other activists I talked to believe that the primary objective of the police was to intimidate a group that was becoming increasingly fearless in confronting the regime.
A popular Egyptian blogger and tweeter who goes by the name Big Pharaoh told me that when the uprising against Mubarak’s rule began, state media tried to portray the Ultras as criminals and lower-class ruffians. Big Pharaoh, a Coptic Christian, said he was surprised to discover that the Ultras represent a cross-section of Egyptian society, including Copts. According to Big Pharaoh, one sees such a mixture of both Christian and Muslim young men “only in the April 6 movement,” which used Twitter and Facebook to rally anti-Mubarak protesters to Tahrir Square. “They are graduates of Jesuit schools, elite, working class, all thrown together.”
Hardened by several years of confronting Mubarak’s security forces, the Ultras became participants in the pro-democracy protests against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that continued long after Mubarak fell, though they did not participate as a group during the January–February uprising that brought down Mubarak. During a July 2011 march to the Ministry of Defense to protest the entrenchment of military power, Big Pharaoh and other demonstrators became trapped between security forces and civilian thugs. “We tweeted ‘where are the Ultras’?” Within half an hour, he says, hundreds of uniformed Ultras “joined the fight, on the front lines, and tipped the balance.” Did they? Some Egyptians warn against exaggerating their strength and doubt they had any large effect, for all the attention they’ve had in the media since the Port Said events.
In the Cairo neighborhood called Garden City, I visited the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which has compiled one of the most comprehensive reports on the Port Said events. Karim Medhat Ennarah, a researcher who specializes in criminal justice, told me that he had concluded that “the police were complicit” in the killings. Just before the fateful match in Port Said on February 1, he said, tensions between the regime and the Ultras had spiked. During an earlier match in Cairo between Al Ahly and the Arab Contractors, the Ultras had chanted demands for the downfall of General Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Afterward, the Ultras marched through Cairo streets to the offices of state-owned television, repeating their demand for the end of military rule. The stage was set for a violent confrontation. “You had this game in Port Said, and a security apparatus that is morally debased, with no qualms about mobilizing thugs to crack down on demonstrators,” Ennarah told me.
According to a parliamentary investigation of the incident—the findings of which were confirmed by Ennarah’s group—the police allowed hundreds of people without tickets to enter the stadium, an unprecedented lapse of pregame security. Witnesses testified that many of these people carried knives, clubs, and other weapons. The police were well aware that there was bad blood between the Al Ahly and Al Masry Ultras, Ennarah said. A previous match between the two teams had ended in a melee, and the Al Ahly capo had tried, without success, to arrange a truce with his Port Said counterpart ahead of the February 1 match.