We die for Football, and Egypt
Under Hosni Mubarak’s rule football stadiums made for one of only a few places where Egyptians were relatively free to express their own opinion. During matches especially one group of supporters never made a secret of their hatred against the government: the Ultras Ahlawy, radical fans of Egypt’s most famous football club Al Ahly Cairo. One year after the deadly clashes in the stadium of Port Said the Ahlawy are fighting for justice. Ben Kilb has followed them.
The Ahlawy and state security had clashed frequently prior to the Egyptian revolution in early 2011. So the Ultras were the only movement in Egypt who had gained experience of organized combat against the regime. It was almost natural that the Ahlawy would be on the front lines of the uprising against Mubarak’s rule. Many call the Ultras the spearhead of the revolution since they protected protesters on Tahrir Square against police and armed thugs who attacked on camels.
In early February 2012, clashes in a stadium in Port Said between Ahly supporters and its armed rivals from Al Masry left 74 people dead, most of them Ahlawy. Many blamed remnants of the old regime inside the transitional government for seeking revenge for the Ultras’ role in the revolution. The authorities are accused to have staged or at least tolerated the riots. Since then the Ahlawy are fighting for justice. I followed them for three weeks.
They call it villa, not camp, not sit-in. To motivate themselves, they say, to signal each other that this protest isn’t temporary. Whoever enters the villa first passes half-hearted road blocks occupied by lazy cops and armored vehicles, then has his passport checked by two stoic teenagers securing a steel barricade. Every wall inside is dotted with graffiti of martyrs, victims of the Port Said massacre. Between trees and lamp posts huge banners show their portraits. The youngest martyr was Anas, 14 years old.
There is not much tension in the villa. Shopkeepers are selling sugar cane juice, tea and Koshary. Protesters and residents are chatting like neighbors. The inhabitants have marked their turf here after meeting heavy police resistance some days ago when the sit-in was put up. By now, the police has lined up behind an iron fence, blocking all roads to the People’s Assembly. But the angry young men are not here for violence. Instead they gather and start a massive crescendo of hatred against the state and love for Ahly.
The Ultras Ahlawy, radical fans from Egypt’s most famous football club Al Ahly Cairo, will only remove their tents in front of the People’s Assembly in Cairo’s district Garden City when Egyptian justice meets their demands: a trial for the people responsible for the massacre, including senior officials, harder sanctions on Al Masry and all of that before the cancelled football matches will be resumed. If not, the Ahlawy will risk further clashes with the authorities. They are used to it. “We live for football and we die for football”, vows Ultra Ahmed Ashraf.
It’s early April 2012 and Cairo has been quiet for some time. For weeks there were just occasional quarrels in the suburbs, quickly cleared by the army. Demonstrations on Tahrir Square, Cairo’s major traffic hub and focal point for last year’s revolution, are mostly peaceful. They are mainly occupied by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Their hopefuls and SCAF’s are leading the polls for the presidential election scheduled for May 23 and 24 which will largely determine the outcome of the revolution. 13 months have passed since the uprising. SCAF, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, still governs the country. They are supposed to manage Egypt’s transition from decades of autocratic rule to democracy. But the military also controls between 25 and 40 percent of the country’s economy – a share it is eager to maintain.
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400 meters from Tahrir, in front of the People’s Assembly, Ultra Amr says “fuck them all” and gives the middle finger to the police. “The Salafis and the Muslim Brothers only work for themselves, not for the people”, he grumbles, “the Muslim Brothers maybe a little more than the Salafis, though both are luncatics. They didn’t dare to come to Tahrir last year and now they make demands.” Amr’s left hand is bandaged, he was injured when Ahlawy clashed with security forces almost two weeks ago. The only presidential candidate he would support is Mohammed el-Baradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and maybe independent Abdel Abul Futuh because neither one was in dirty games with the former government, the young Ultra thinks.
Amr is 20, nicknamed Shingouma, the crazy one, and has been an Ultra for two years. He lost his job as a security officer for a cellphone company when he was arrested while attending a protest against SCAF. Amr lives with his parents in Matareya, one of Cairo’s suburbs. He comes to the villa every day.
The arrest might have saved Amr’s life. When he was discharged from custody on late afternoon of February 2nd many of his Ultra friends had left for Northern Egypt to watch Ahly play Port Said’s Al Masry. Amr turned on his TV and saw one of the darkest moments in sports history.
After the match the Ahlawy were attacked by angry masses from its rival’s block. Some of the 74 victims were stabbed or beaten to death by the mob. Most suffocated in a stampede or were crushed when the gates were torn down. Some deaths weren’t investigated at all. The families took their relatives’ bodies home after the massacre and buried them. A couple victims had “Port Said” scarified into their foreheads.
There are people who say it was only Masry Ultras, called Green Eagles, who attacked. Others claim Masry fans mixed with armed thugs paid by the SCAF who was punishing the Ultras for their important role during the revolution. Most reports from Port Said however tell that security forces gave an armed mob easy access to the Masry stadium. The authorities, it is rumored, had locked the gates of the arena minutes before the end of the match and tolerated maybe even encouraged the mob when it attacked.
Amr and many of his fellow Ultras had joined the protests in January 2011 in the Middle East’s most populated country at an early stage. “But we didn’t come as Ultras, we came as Egyptians”, he and other Ahlawys insist. Only when it was clear that the uprising required violent confrontations with state forces the Ultras collectively joined the protests on January 29, called “Friday of Anger”. Soon they found themselves on the front lines of the uprising, fighting police and thugs in the decisive “Battle of the Camel” and on Qasr El Nile Bridge. They had developed their defence strategies in prior street fights with the police. Since the Ultras were founded in 2007 the Interior Ministry had difficulties accepting a well-organized group with subversive tendencies that was able to mobilize young people by the thousands. It plagued the Ultras with arrests and provoked them by starting clashes in stadiums or on the streets. “But it didn’t think that we were that strong”, says Karim Adel, 28, leader of between 8.000 to 10.000 Ultras.
The Ultras strength though might have led to the massacre in Port Said when the Ahlawy were outnumbered and surprised. Unlike Shingouma, who was in prison, Ultra Momin, 24, had went to see the match. He remembers already the journey to Northern Egypt being unusual:
First the National Bus Service refused to bring us from Cairo to Port Said. When we took the train it was stopped by the army thirty kilometers in front of the city and we were brought to Port Said by busses. In front of the stadium there was almost no security. We had a bad feeling.”
Momin recalls that his comrade Yousef and one of his friends had went to the bathroom minutes before the end of the game. When they tried to re-enter the arena the gates were locked. Yousef’s friend later mentioned a police officer addressing him and Yousef with “you will die”. Inside the stadium masses from the Masry block came running towards the Ahlawy, Momin tells. Many armed with knives, swords or guns. Some carried flash lights or torches because the lights had been turned off. Ahly supporters tried to rush out of the stadium, but they couldn’t, every gate was locked. Momin saw many people die, he remembers. He was attacked too, but defended himself with a chair. Fights between the Ahlawy and the mob lasted for about thirty minutes then the attackers scattered in all directions. Yousef had died when masses tore down one of the big gates and crushed him. “The police didn’t do anything”, Momin says. For days after the massacre, Masry fans all over Port Said were arrested. But Momin believes it was arbitrary arrests and people put into jail who didn’t have anything to do with the clashes in the stadium.
In Shingouma’s neighborhood in Matareya walls are plastered with sprayed portraits of Yousef and Roshdy, latter one of the Ultras drummers. No one knows how he died. After his shattered body was found it is believed that he fell off the Ahly block, stripped bare of all his belongings and cloth, except his trousers.
“He had followed Ahly to Algeria, Tunesia, even Angola”, his mother remembers. “When he announced that he would leave for Port Said, I wouldn’t give him money because I was afraid something would happen. Ahlawy and the Green Eagles had already clashed one year earlier. But he had saved money, so he went.“
After two weeks the Ultras put their sit-in in front of the People’s Assembly on hold. Egyptian justice met some of their demands. It imposed harder sanctions on Masry and banned them from playing football for two years. Most important: it charged 75 people including nine senior police officers with assisting the attackers from Al-Masry stands and it changed the date of the first court session of the Port Said trial from late June to mid-April. The Ultras will come back to the People’s Assembly, they promise, if the continuing trial turns out to be a farce.
As infuriated the Ahlawy are these days and considered how much difficulties Egypt’s governments have to weaken the movement – they are not a wild gang. One evening, at a secret meeting next to the Ahly Stadium in Nasr City, a sitting crowd of about one thousand Ultras turns quiet the moment leader Karim Adel begins to speak. He and founding member Mohammed Mongy, nicknamed Yuri, threaten to exclude all members from Cairo who don’t show up to protests and meetings without excuse. There isn’t one interjection from the audience, not a single member who feels the need to show off. It is a perfect example of commitment and group mentality.
German Kathrin Schwarz teaches her native language at Cairo’s German School since she left her home country three years ago. Her son Yassin is a friend of Amr, so Schwarz and Yassin visit the Ultras’ protests frequently. The teacher thinks that the young Ultras’ respect for their leaders is remarkable compared to her student’s miserable behavior at school. If they even show up for lessons at all.
That the Ahlawy are a somehow progressive movement for a nation like Egypt is also shown by how it’s comprised: it is mixed with citizens from all social classes, even girls can join, and do. The Ultras attract engineers, doctors, all kinds of professions.
We have no ideology, neither political nor religious restrictions. It doesn’t matter who you are or who you support. The Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood or liberal parties – as long as you aren’t with SCAF and you are with Ahly, you’re welcome”,
founding member Yuri tells. Nevertheless, Sherif Al-Ashraf, contributor to the Middle Eastern webzine Jaddaliyya, wonders if the Port Said tragedy will provoke the Ultras to develop their strategies and combat mechanisms further so as to play an even more direct political and social role in the future.
In his café, leader Karim Adel talks about the early days of the Ahlawy:
Back in 2007, we saw the strength of Ultra movements in Italy, Serbia and Tunisia. We wanted this too, something special in terms of fan culture.”
Since then, the Ultras’ numbers have constantly risen. Founding member Yuri though emphasizes that the leaders want the Ultras to have a solid foundation, meaning that the numbers should be limited soon:
“It’s time to slow down a little. Otherwise we can’t really teach members what it means to be an Ultra. We’d risk it to be something arbitrary.”
For Shingouma the Ahlawy are not just an activity when he is unemployed:
We are like a big family. We help each other with everything in life, be it financial or personal problems. What I get from being with the Ultras I don’t get with any other club or movement.”
To become members, aspirants have to attend all meetings and show up to protests. It is the first rule. The second is self-denial, Ahly above all. It explains why their leaders usually avoid any media presence, they don’t want to be seen as stars, every member is important. But their dislike for media also originates from Egypt’s biased press reports in favor of the government. When Mubarak was still in power, the Ultras were discredited whenever possible, labeled as gays, addicts or terrorists.
“And todays so-called independent newspapers aren’t much better than the ones submissive to Mubarak’s rule”, Amr thinks.
Hotel manager Ahmed Essam’s business in downtown Cairo seems to be some kind of refuge for former high-ranking figures of Mubarak’s regime. Many men in their sixties and seventess hang out at the place. No one seems to be an employee, they are rather constant guests. Amr recognizes Adel Nagib, one of Mubarak’s former propagandists, in the hotel’s dining room. Soon after learning that Amr is an Ultra, Nagib shows up having a gun tugged in his belt, for everyone to see, most of all Amr.
Manager Essam bows his head when asked about Port Said and the Ahlawy. He is pondering desperately for the right words, only to add one-dimensional attributes: “They have been warned on Facebook that they shouldn’t come to Port Said. So it’s simply their fault what happened. The Ultras are dangerous people, always looking for trouble.”
One week after the Ahlawy ended their sit-in, they protest for retaliation by building a human chain in front of the Ahly club center in Cairo’s district Zamalek. This part of the capital is also home of Zamalek Sporting Club, Ahly’s bourgeois rival and always a loyal ally to the regime. In the wake of Port Said, the Ahlawy and Zamalek’s Ultras, the White Knights, put their rivalry aside. They now evince their solidarity towards Ahlawy by showing up at their protests. “You see them”, Ahlawy Mohammed, 18, asks, before carefully greeting two boys about his age:
They are White Knights. A year ago we wouldn’t have talked to them. We would have hit each other.”
The human chain in front of the club center can be seen as an attunement, a preparation for the members. Because three days later Ahlawy from all over the capital enter busses to meet in front of the Police Academy in New Cairo. Inside the Academy the first session of the Port Said trial is held, victims and perpetrators named, indictments read. Outside, the Ultras and relatives of martyrs chant hymns against the SCAF and listen to radio reports about the trial. Verdicts, everyone is sure, won’t be reached for months, maybe even a year, not as long as SCAF is in power. Some are afraid that the heavy security in front of the Academy will provoke the Ultras. But by now, both sides know that any clashes are to no ones advantage.
Many calls for a retrieval of the Egyptian revolution have been made as soon as the last one was officially ended and Mubarak ousted. Now, the Egyptians are split into fractions who support everything, from Anarchists to radical Islamists. The strongest parts of the opposition – several revolutionary groups, liberal parties, the Salafists, the Muslim Brothers – deeply disgagree since the revolution, and the SCAF openly supports a presidential hopeful like Omar Sulyman, former head of Egypt’s feared state security. People believe the SCAF tries to prolong its hold on power by insisting that a new Egyptian constitution must be written before the presidential election set for May 23 and 24.
Mass protests on Tahrir like Self-Determination-Day, even if called for by the revolutionary 6th of April Movement, are dominated by Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, although it’s rumored that many supposed supporters are paid and transported to Tahrir by busses. The Ultras avoid the square on Self-Determination-Day and gather in Mohamad Mahmoud Street, by now almost an legendary place which saw some of the fiercest battles during the revolution. The Ahlawy and the Islamists are no enemies, but the Ultras are as frustrated as most liberal Egyptians since the Salafists and the Muslim Brothers started to give the impression that the country will be turned from a tyranny into a nation ruled by the sharia if they held power.
Shingouma spends his days watching and reading news or roaming through Cairo, adding his opinion to quarrels. He just can’t keep from meddling into every public discussion he will come upon in the capital.
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While visiting a sit-in of Salafists outside the Defence Ministry, Shingouma is attacked by thugs and hit on his head with a gun. “Don’t worry, I’m fine,”, he assures after getting his skull cracked, being stitched and spending some days in a hospital. He takes it like he knew that something like this would happen. Within hours he is back into street discussions.
Every time mass protests on Tahrir are organized Shingouma hopes that they will bring another revolution, that this time it will be the final spark that burns all of what is left of Mubarak. Amr is both, an Ultra and a revolutionary. And even if the Ahlawy’s rules demand something else – above all, he is Egyptian.
About the author
Ben Kilb is a photographer and feature writer based in Frankfurt am Main/Germany. His work has been published in The New York Times, NRC Handelsblad, Bild am Sonntag, der freitag, Zenith, arte and other publications. Ben is available for assignments worldwide. Follow Ben on twitter