Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ultras in kufiya (Cairo, Tahrir)

One of the great stories from the Egyptian revolution is how the "ultras" (fanatical football/soccer fans) of Cairo's two main clubs, Ahli and Zamalek, played a key role in defending, and in fact saving, the Revolution, on the night of February 2nd. When I was in Cairo, a good friend (and a reliable source) told me about how, on that night, when the thugs (baltagiyya) of the regime attacked, the word was sent out from ultras on the square, and 2000 more ultras showed up to organize those on Tahrir, many of them middle class youths not so accustomed to street fighting, as well as to fight for the revolution themselves. As my friend explained, the "ultras" detest the police, who have been as tough on them as on any Egyptians causing "trouble," or not. They've experienced the beatings, the torture, the abuse that so many young Egyptians have routinely faced at the hands of Egyptian security. And, what is more, the ultras have lots experience fighting the police and the security. The other key force that came to the rescue of the revolution on the night of February 2 were the Muslim Brothers. Their leadership was also called from the square when the regime thugs launched their attacks, and so the Brothers sent out about 2000 of their own "self-defence squads," i.e., their toughs, their enforcers. A coalition of ultras and Ikwhan therefore saved the revolution that night, along with the less-experienced but willing-to-fight thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators who were already there. (A great source on the intersection of politics and Middle East soccer is James Dorsey's invaluable blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He has posted several times about the role of the ultras in the Egyptian revolution.)

This Friday, July 15, the Brotherhood boycotted the protests at Tahrir. But the ultras were there, as this photo, and account, from 3Arabawy, shows. And I quote:

Ahmed Bahar and Tarek “Masaken” of Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights in Tahrir Square on Friday night. 

I had an interesting chat with Tarek, a young UWK member who’s also a staunch pro-Palestine supporter. He told me he’s been attending demos in solidarity with Palestine since he was a prep school student. Both Bahar and Tarek in addition to thousands of other UWK members took part in the January uprising, and their role, as well of that of the Ultras Ahlawy, were sometimes central in confrontations with the Central Security Forces troops on the Friday of Anger, and against the thugs during the “Battle of the Camel” on 2 February.

It's great to learn that some of the ultras are not just struggling for democracy in Egypt, but are also supporters of the struggle of the Palestinians. And please note the Che t-shirt.


Don said...

It sounds nice and romantic - Egyptian football hooligans coming to save the middle class educated revolutionaries who aren't accustomed to fighting. And then the cavalry arrives (the Muslim Brothers) to deliver the coup de grace.

I'd like to believe. But do you think it really happened that way? Is it that clear? It sounds a bit like myth building.

Ted Swedenburg said...

It does sound like myth building, but there are lots of written and eyewitness accounts. I had read the story before I went to Cairo, and was able to confirm it based on the account of my friend, who is very reliable, and was involved in the events.

nassama said...

Great to read! When I was in Cairo a friend of mine also mentioned the decisive role of the ultra's in defending, toghether with the MB, Tahrir Square. In fact there are many occasions in history where hooligans played a decisive role in (street) politics - for good or bad.