The soccer riots which saw the death of at least 70 in Port Said this past Wednesday sparked protests in Cairo and Port Said in which at least 4 more have been killed and 700 injured. This senseless violence is difficult to comprehend, but taking a closer look at the long and complicated relationship between Egypt’s soccer clubs and the government can help to provide some context. James M. Dorsey, a Senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has been keeping up with a very excellent blog on the Turbulent World of Mideast Soccer that is a great resource if you really want to dive into this subject.
Social life in Cairo is organized around “clubs” which provide a space for recreational activities and a local social network. In today’s Cairo of crowded streets and teeming traffic, the gated clubs surrounded by high walls are some of the only places to find open spaces and a sense of seclusion. In 1907, the leaders of Egypt’s student unions founded a club that could be used as a gathering place for leaders of the anti-colonial struggle. They called it “al-Ahly” which means “the National.” In 1911, the British founded their own club in the posh Cairo district of Zamalek, the “White Knights.”
These two clubs provide a gathering place for members to socialize, and have associated soccer, basketball, volleyball, and handball teams. But soccer is King in Egypt, and the soccer teams of Zamalek and Al-Ahly have a long-standing rivalry with obvious political and social undertones. Both clubs are among the best in Africa, with Al-Ahly staking a legitimate claim to being the most successful team on the continent.
In 2007, groups of young men who were supporters of these two soccer teams formed loose organizations called “Ultras,” modeled off of similar groups in Italy and Serbia. They started out by demonstrating their support at matches, chanting and intimidating the fans of the other teams:
Then, in 2008, Egypt won the Africa Cup of Nations, an annual event similar to the UEFA Champions League in Europe. Ultras suspended their differences and took to the streets in unison. Here is a picture of me in the midst of these riots in Tahrir Square. I’m the pale one:
This event foreshadowed the masses that would be gathered in the same spot three years later, demanding an end to the Mubarak regime in last year’s revolution:
Early on in the revolution, when police were sent out to intimidate protestors, the Ultras used their organization and their experience fighting police in the stands of Egypt’s soccer stadiums to their advantage to fend them off. Later, after Mubarak had disbanded the police and resorted to plain-clothes security officers/thugs called “baltagiya” to contribute to the atmosphere of lawlessness, the Ultras stepped up and formed round-the-clock neighborhood patrols. Consistently throughout the past year, the Ultras have tapped into their organization to mobilize protesters and put their stamp on the events by chanting slogans and spraying fire from aerosol cans.
The recent elections in Egypt and the transition from the carnivalistic atmosphere of protests to the mundane world of political horse-trading has left many Ultras disaffected. The process has moved slowly, and the issue of reforming the police force has yet to be addressed by the new parliament. But the Egyptian club soccer season has continued on. This week, Al-Ahly traveled to the Suez Canal city of Port Said to take on the soccer team associated with a big club in that city, “Al-Masry,” which means “The Egyptian.” Al-Masry was a huge underdog, but won the match 4-1. After the match, Al-Masry fans stormed the field and attacked the Ahlawi Ultras. Most of the dead were Cairenes who had made the trip in for the match.
In a blog post at Foreign Policy that seems slightly laced with conspiracy theory, Mohamed El Dahshan accuses the SCAF, the group of 20 senior military officers in charge of leading Egypt at present, of deliberately withdrawing security and re-routing the fans of Al-Masry onto the field in order to encourage the melee. Many Egyptians think the police and the SCAF were trying to settle their long-standing score with the Ultras with the violence.
It seems to me to be much more probable that the lack of governmental attention to the significant issue of the institution of the police in Egypt has led to the crumbling of that institution. I cannot say whether a sense of lawlessness pervades general life in Egypt at present, but a strained and disenchanted police force is surely incapable of handling something as tense as a huge Egyptian soccer game with two rival groups of militant fans prone to violence on either side of the stadium.
The protests that have resulted have seen Masrawi Ultras and Ahlawi Ultras joining together and calling for the removal of the SCAF. So far, it seems like the Islamists who dominate the newly-elected lower house of the Egyptian parliament are siding with the protesters, interpreting the riots as nefarious deeds of the SCAF and using them as an occasion to call for the council’s resignation and full sovereignty granted to the parliament. This is, of course, the fundamental debate that keeps the protests going in Egypt, and its resolution will determine the future of that country.