Targeting the Ultras: Why are security forces trying to erase the memory of the stands?

Security forces arrested 150 Ahly Football Club fans (Ultras Ahlawy) from Borg al-Arab stadium in Alexandria on Saturday, the most recent incident in a pattern of detaining members of Egypt’s football fan associations. Thirty two of those arrested during the match between Ahly and Tunisia’s Esperance have been held and charged, the remainder were released, according to Lawyer Mohamed Hafez.

Saturday’s arrests did not follow the typical pattern of clashes between Ultras and security forces, Hafez says, suggesting that fans were arrested for wearing shirts bearing the number 74, a reference to the fans that were killed during the 2012 Port Said stadium violence.

Similar arrests of fans, some of whom were wearing number 74 shirts, were made in July over two consecutive days during matches at Borg al-Arab stadium, where most Egyptian teams play in African competitions.  

On July 8, security forces prevented Ahly fans from attending a match with the Cameroonian team, barring them from entering the stadium through the gate on the left that is typically used by Ultras Ahlawy and those without expensive membership. This led to clashes and the arrest of 90 supporters, 73 of whom were later released, and 17 of whom were remanded in detention and referred to the prosecution for possessing shirts with number 74 and using fireworks.

On July 9, security forces also prevented Zamalek Club fans (Ultras White Knights) from attending a game with the Libyan Al Ahli SC, stopping them at a gate on the right side of the stadium. Twenty-six fans were arrested and charged with possession of false tickets. The 26 Ultras White Knights and 17 Ultras Ahlawy were referred by the prosecution to Alexandria Misdemeanors Court, where they were acquitted of all charges.

Security forces arrested around 500 more Zamalek Club fans during and after the same match and held them at Alexandria Security Directorate, before releasing almost half of them the following day. Some 235 supporters were charged with belonging to and leading an illegal organization, utilizing terrorism to achieve the organization’s goals, possession of fireworks and attacking police personnel, among other charges. They were referred to military prosecution under Egypt’s military judiciary law, as the stadium they were arrested from is the property of the Armed Forces.

Around the same time, security forces arrested 10 people for attempting to obtain information about the Ultras White Knights who were referred to military prosecution, accusing them of blocking the road in front of the Security Directorate, and referring them to Sidi Gaber Misdemeanors Court of Appeal, which acquitted them of all charges. The prosecution appealed this decision and the defendants appeared before the court again the following day. On Sunday, the court adjourned this session until October 15, according to Hafez.

While local football games have not been attended by fans since the Port Said stadium violence in February 2012, and further violence at Cairo’s Air Defense Stadium in February 2015, the Confederation of African Football pressured the Egyptian Football Association to permit fans to attend games in the African Cup of Nations, leading to increasing numbers of arrests over the last couple of years.

In May 2015, Ultras groups were declared “terrorist organizations” by the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters and ordered to dissolve. There isn’t a game that passes without the arrest of fans, Hafez says, some of whom are later released, but others have been consistently referred to trials.

“Wearing club shirts bearing words of support for dead fans does not constitute a crime … and should not be punished,” Hafez argues.

An Ahly fan who attended Saturday’s game says, “I saw another young man who had been detained by security forces taking off his shirt. I asked one of my friends to stand behind me and hide the 74 on my back, so that security would not see me, and I escaped at the last minute. The game continued peacefully, but they [the police] insist on causing trouble and arresting people.” What is happening is an act of revenge against Ultras for their participation in the January 2011 Revolution, he says, echoing the thoughts of many fans.

Political researcher Ziad Akl considers the actions of security forces at Borg al-Arab Stadium and other games where clashes have taken place to be about more than just security. He suggests the tension is between three main parties: the state, the masses and the businessmen in charge of the football industry in Egypt, which he says has created a state of conflict between the three, as their investment interests contradict the ethos of the Ultras, leaving the state in the middle.

Dalia Abdel Hamid, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who has previously worked on Ultras movements, says the emergence of the Ultras groups in 2007 brought crowds back to the stands at a time when people largely watched games on television. “At the same time, the state started to project a certain image of the ‘ideal fan,’ which coincided with Egypt’s repeated victories in the African Cup games. The Ultras appeared to present a different image, that of young people of different ages and social backgrounds, who have a certain style of cheering on their teams that is different to that of the ideal Egyptian cheerleader. More importantly, they have succeeded in reclaiming public space in the stands,” she says.

Ultras groups are divided according to neighborhoods, but at matches they come together across class divides. “However, many of them cannot afford the huge subscription fees, and they compensate for this with their extreme loyalty to the clubs,” Abdel Hamid adds. This is clear when you look at the stands during games. The spaces where members sit are sparse and the areas for non members are full of Ultras. These are the spaces fans were prevented from entering during recent games.

The continued security crackdown on Ultras reflects the state’s fear over the ways in which they organize, not only to cheer on their teams, but also to mourn fans who have died, Abdel Hamid says. Dead fans have become symbols of struggle and resistance.

Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla

Mai Shams El-Din 

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