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Saturday 25 February 2012

Cairo's Red Devils From Football Fans to Revolutionary Heroes By Daniel Steinvorth

Cairo's Red Devils
From Football Fans to Revolutionary Heroes
By Daniel Steinvorth,1518,816709,00.html

Hard-core fans of Cairo's Al-Ahly football club have played a leading role in contesting authorities both during and since Egypt's revolution. Though they have powerful enemies and many have died in recent violence, they refuse to be cowed.

It's a cool February evening in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and Omar has covered his face with a black-and-white kaffiyeh scarf. He's wearing faded jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. His eyes are still red and swollen from teargas the night before.

Omar points to a side street that leads from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of the Interior. Half-burnt car tires and toppled dumpsters lie along the sidewalk.

"We've been fighting in these streets for months," he says. "In November, they hurt one of our guys really bad. He's blind now, but we still take him to all the games."

The wiry, young man is an avid football fan and an "ultra" for Al-Ahly, Egypt's best-known football club. Ultras are the hard-core fans, the ones who give everything for their club. Although the movement started in Europe, it has also taken root among Africa's largest clubs in recent years. Ultras are passionate, loud and occasionally violent. The al-Ahly ultras call themselves the "Red Devils" and welcome their team onto the field with flares.

The young men are mainly concerned with having fun. But now they've been thrust into the center of Egypt's political storm.

War in the Stands

In early February, the greatest catastrophe in the history of Egyptian football shocked the country and the world. Al-Ahly, the Cairo team that has dominated the Egyptian league for seven seasons, played an away match against its rival al-Masry in the city of Port Said, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) northeast of Cairo on the Suez Canal. After the final whistle, thousands of fans stormed the pitch, armed with knives, clubs and even guns. Security forces either pulled back or merely watched as the mob attacked defenseless al-Ahly fans in their section of the stadium.

The young men were driven against a wall and beaten. Then, mass panic broke out. With the back gates of the stadium locked, the stadium became a death trap impossible to escape. In the end, the clashes would leave 74 dead and over a thousand wounded.

Omar never misses one of his club's matches and was in the Port Said stadium, as well. He watched helplessly as friends bled to death until he was attacked himself. A man with a knife approached and ordered him to remove his al-Ahly jersey. "Now my time is up," Omar thought. But then he stumbled out of the stands and ran for his life until the attacker lost sight of him.

"They wanted to wage war on us that night," Omar recalls in a trembling voice.

Hard-Core Fan Culture

Omar is 18-years-old and graduated from secondary school a year ago. The young man, who prefers not to provide his real name, has belonged to the Red Devils for years.

Ultras see themselves as the avant-garde of fan culture. The groups are tightly organized and self-contained. Their leader, known as "capo," uses a megaphone to lead chants that are repeated in unison by fans in the stadium.

Although Omar isn't sure exactly how many Red Devils there are, he estimates their number at between 5,000 and 10,000. Only the capo knows the actual figure. Most of them are students, unemployed people or blue-collar workers between the ages of 16 and 26. Each Red Devil is assigned a specific role. Some just sing or drum, while the tougher among them are sometimes called upon to pick fights with the police or groups of rival fans. Omar is one of the flag bearers.

Heroes of the Revolution

Omar wasn't sure at first whether he wanted to speak with a journalist. For ultras, the media are not considered allies. And in the wake of the attack in Port Said, the Red Devils have grown even more cautious. They trust no one.

"The military council, the police and the old regime want to annihilate us because we supported the revolution," Omar says.

The al-Ahly ultras were founded in 2007. The group advertised itself as "the only genuine opposition of young Egyptians" already during the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. They would organize clashes with police at games without fearing their billy clubs or tear gas.

Cairo's Red Devils were also there when the mass protests against Mubarak's regime broke out on Jan. 25, 2011. Their most important battle of the revolution occurred soon thereafter, on Feb. 2, the day of the so-called "camel fight." Mubarak's henchmen tried to storm Tahrir Square on camels and horses. The Red Devils fought back with determination and drove the horsemen from the square. But, more than anything, they helped other demonstrators overcome their fear -- and, in doing so, became heroes of the revolution.

Rumors now circulating in Cairo claim that the old regime orchestrated the attack in Port Said as a way of exacting revenge on the Red Devils. Witnesses say that only the al-Ahly fans were searched for weapons before the game. On the night of the match, there were noticeably fewer policemen on duty in the stadium than usual. Some have even suggested that groups of thugs were secretly herded into the stadium during the game.

In the wake of the Port Said attack, the Egyptian Football Association indefinitely suspended matches in the country's top league.

Born for Confrontation

Al-Ahly's clubhouse lies among a vast expanse of gardens and parks on Gazira Island, located on the Nile River in central Cairo. A large sign over the entrance reads "Only God is eternal" to commemorate club fans killed in Port Said. Passing drivers will stop to offer up prayers to the deceased. A sidewalk vendor sells club memorabilia, such as keychains bearing the names of the club's stars, as well as wristbands and fireworks.

Al-Ahly is the largest football club in Egypt and one of the most successful on the continent. In 2000, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) voted it the continent's "Club of the Century." Nationalist-minded students founded the club in 1907, during a time when football and politics were already inseparable in Egypt. Wishing to send a message to their British colonial rulers, the club's founders named it al-Ahly, or "the National." They also made the players' jerseys red, the color of Egypt's pre-colonial flag.

Al-Ahly's arch nemesis, Zamalek, was supported by the country's unpopular Egyptian ruler, King Farouk. It was a team of British officers and affluent Egyptians. Their jersey's were white, the symbolic color of colonialism.

Even after Egypt gained its independence in 1953, Zamalek strengthened its reputation as the club of the middle and upper classes, while al-Ahly became a club for a hodgepodge of working-class Islamists and nationalists. Their fans have passionately hated each other to this day, and their matches regularly devolve into street battles.

The Zamalek ultras call themselves the "White Knights." Omar, the al-Ahly flag-bearer, is blunt when discussing his club's rivals. "We don't like the Knights, and they don't like us," he says.

Joining Forces against a Common Enemy

These days, though, animosity between the two ultra groups has been overshadowed by a new common enemy. A few weeks ago, they even came to a reconciliation agreement. In a statement on their website, the White Knights offered a truce "for the good of Egypt." The Red Devils accepted by putting a smiley-face icon on their homepage.

"We have a common enemy that we both profoundly despise: the ravens," says Omar, referring to the black-uniformed and universally hated security forces. Al-Ahly has even come up with a song about the ravens that has achieved cult status throughout the ultra scene. One part goes: "He was already always incapable, and he was only able to get a proper high school degree with a bribe. Come on, you raven, why are you destroying what's beautiful in our country?"

The song is one of many meant to taunt the police. Omar even believes the songs might have led police to take revenge on al-Ahly fans on that tragic night in Port Said.

In recent years, football has been a constant problem for those in power in Egypt. Stadiums have transformed into open spaces in which people let of steam -- most of which is anger directed toward the ruling regime.

In an effort to keep fan protests in check, the state has deployed riot police and soldiers at matches. At the same time, politicians and the military have tried to co-opt the clubs so as to be able to better control them. But those in power have never managed to rein in the ultra movement.

Commemorating the Fallen, Continuing the Fight

Many large Egyptian clubs now have hard-core fan bases that don't shy away from violent confrontations with the police. "We love our club unconditionally," Omar says. But now the ultras are also fighting for their country, for the idea of a new society.

The Red Devils' flag can now be seen every day in Tahrir Square. The fans have not allowed themselves to be cowed by the attacks in Port Said. In fact, they may have even grown stronger.

Omar took part in the street battles with police in the days following the Port Said massacre. He joined thousands of other demonstrators as they tried to storm the Ministry of the Interior. They threw stones at police vans and demanded the "field marshal's head," referring to Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the commander of the Egyptian armed forces and leader of the ruling military council. While unleashing their rage, the Red Devils of al-Ahly have fought side by side with the White Nights of Zamalek.

Indeed, both clubs are now intent on sending a message. The clubs' presidents have announced a friendly match "in memory of the martyrs" of Port Said. It will be the first game played since the catastrophe. Al-Ahly players plan to wear black shirts to commemorate the fallen among their ranks.

Omar won't be at the game. He says it's still too early for him to think about football. He first wants to avenge the death of his friends. He is awaiting his capo's orders.

Translated from the German by Alex Macbeth


How a tragic football riot may have revived the Egyptian revolution
After 74 people were killed in a riot in Port Said, football fans have united in the face of police inaction.
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2012 06:12

There are no words for the horror that took place in Port Said, Egypt recently. A football match became a killing field, with at least 74 spectators dead, and as many as 1,000 injured. The visiting Al-Ahly team lost to Al-Masri, and what followed will stain the sport forever.

Al-Masri fans rushed the field, attacking the Al-Ahly cheering section after Al-Masri's 3-1 upset victory. People were stabbed and beaten, but the majority of deaths took place because of asphyxiation, as Al-Ahly fans were crushed against locked stadium doors. It was so unspeakably traumatic that beloved Al-Ahly star Mohamed Aboutreika, who famously revealed a "Sympathise with Gaza" shirt during the 2008 Israel bombardment, immediately announced his retirement after the match. A distraught Aboutreika said, "This is not football. This is a war and people are dying in front of us. There is no movement and no security and no ambulances. I call for the league to be canceled. This is a horrible situation, and today can never be forgotten."

This carnage, however, has produced profoundly unexpected results. The shock of Port Said hasn't produced a political coma but instead acted as a defibrillator, bringing a revolutionary impatience back to life. Instead of starting a wave of concern that "lawlessness" was spreading in post-revolutionary Egypt, the anger and sadness seem to be reviving the revolution. The Western media immediately used the shock of the tragedy to call for a crackdown on the hyper-intense fan clubs, the "ultras".

Blame flies after Egypt football tragedy

As the New York Times wrote, "The deadliest soccer riot anywhere in more than 15 years, it also illuminated the potential for savagery among the organised groups of die-hard fans known here as ultras who have added a volatile element to the street protests since Mr Mubarak's exit."

Other Western observers, sympathetic to the revolution, feared with good cause that the riots would strengthen the hand of a military dictatorship slow to transfer power to civilian rule. But on the ground, a new reality quickly took shape. This might be news to the Times, but the reaction in Egypt has been rage at the military, fueled by a widespread belief that, either through benign neglect or malignant intent, the authorities let the killings happen.

The witness reports of the Port Said survivors are scandalous. They describe a situation where exits were blocked by military police. The stadium lights were turned off, adding to the sense of panic. Hundreds of riot police can be clearly seen in amateur videos, standing around and doing nothing, as if ordered to remain passive.

'Shameless complicity'

Every political sector has spoken out against the military police in Port Said. Abbas Mekhimar, head of the Parliament's defense committee, said, "This is a complete crime. This is part of the scenario of fueling chaos against Egypt." Diaa Salah of the Egyptian Football Federation was even more pointed, saying, "The government is getting back at the ultras. They are saying: 'You protest against us, you want democracy and freedom. Here is a taste of your democracy and freedom.'"

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has set itself in opposition to the ultra clubs for much of the year, stated that "the lack of security in the Port Said stadium confirms that there is invisible planning that is behind this unjustified massacre. The authorities have been negligent."

The Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt were more blunt, saying, "The clumsily hatched plot, which could not conceal the shameless complicity of the police, who stood watching the slaughter and killing for hours did not even attempt to protect the victims, carries only one message to the revolutionaries: the revolution must continue... The ultras groups that joined the ranks of the revolution early on... are still proving every day that they are an integral part of our revolution. "

(See this blog post for video analysis inside the stadium that argues how authorities are to blame for Port Said.)

Chris Toensing, the Editor of The Middle East Report, said to me: "Indeed, many Egyptians consider the ultras uncouth. And some may also say that the real revolutionaries are demonstrating peacefully in Tahrir Square, rather than throwing rocks and Molotov Cocktails. But lots of Egyptian activists argue that in 2011- and maybe today as well - the ultras have been key protectors of the revolution, both physically and structurally, in the sense that they keep intense pressure on the state to listen to popular demands."

The people also know that the presumed target of the football riot - the Al-Ahly ultras - after being a leading street fighting force during the revolution, have become a leading target of the military. The Al-Ahly ultras wear that target proudly, chanting at games, (I'm told this rhymes in Arabic):

Oh you MPs
You turned out to be more rotten than the police
Raise the prison walls higher and higher
Tomorrow the revolution with lay them to waste
Oh brother, write on the cell wall
Junta rule is shameful and treasonous
Down Down with Junta rule!

Now not only are many Egyptians coming to the defense of the ultras but, remarkably, ultra groups from opposing clubs have pledged to join forces, seeing the attack on Al-Ahly as an attack on all of them. Their unity was sparked when the Al-Ahly ultras themselves released a statement where they didn't go after Al-Masry but the military, proclaiming, "They want to punish us and execute us for our participation in the revolution against suppression." The ultras then vowed a "new war in defence of the revolution".

Military inactivity

This proved to be more than just words. On Wednesday, February 1, the military leader Tantawi seemed blas about the anguish, anger and accusations arising from Port Said, saying, "Egypt is going down the path we planned, we will continue down this path and we will get through this transition".

On Thursday, protests against military inactivity in the Port Said stadium deaths exploded in Cairo, Suez and Port Said itself. The clashes also marked the one year anniversary of the Battle of the Camels, when Mubarak sent armed thugs riding into Tahrir Square on camels and ultras had their most shining moment, credited with incredible bravery standing in their charging path and forcing them out of the square.

This year, in Cairo, at least 10,000 protesters marched to the Interior Ministry building near Tahrir Square. The battle that followed according to Health Ministry official Adel Adawi, resulted in 388 protesters' injuries. The flags unfurled were the ultra flags of traditional rivals, Al-Ahly and Zamalek.

But most significant were the thousands of Al-Masry fans who gathered in Port Said, demanding answers from police for their passivity during the stadium violence and why the doors of the stadium were closed.

The reemergence of the ultra clubs as a united force against the military regime should send shivers from Cairo to Washington, DC. Last year, as one Egyptian activist said to me: "Getting the ultras to work together in Tahrir might have been the toughest part about deposing Mubarak. They really hate each other. They would spit when saying the other club's name." He spoke to me about the need at times to physically force the ultras to stop squabbling and focus on the task of challenging Mubarak.

But after Port Said, it took no effort. An injury to one group of ultras was seen as an injury to all. As James Dorsey, who writes the indispensable blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, wrote that the aftermath of Port Said has sparked "a reconciliation among once implacable foes while at the same time solidifying emerging fault lines in Egyptian society".

Throughout the past year, as Dorsey writes, the ultras have fought together on numerous occasions, mostly at anti-military protests, in opposition to the Egyptian Football Association, or against the presence of the Israeli embassy. They bled and even died together even as they became more politically isolated by the military's promise of an orderly and peaceful transfer of power to an elected parliament. Now the Port Said carnage has broken the ultras out of their isolation and raised the question openly about what it will really talk to see the military finally out of power. The prospect of united ultras, remarkably, challenges the politics of dead-end gradualism and brings to the forefront the prospect of dramatic change.

Zamalek winger Mahmoud Abdel-Razek also known as Shikabala, Egypt's top player, said, "Despite the cruelty of what happened in Port Said, this disaster played a role in uniting the fans of all clubs. It might be a turning point in ending intolerance and hatred in Egyptian football. I will go to the Ahly club along with my teammates to offer our condolences to the families of Port Said martyrs. The fans of Ahly are my brothers. I hope Ahly and Zamalek fans can sit together in the stands without barriers."

Al-Ahly midfielder Mohamed Barakat, has also spoken out, refusing to play ever again until there is true "retribution for those that were killed".

There have been continuous efforts to marginalise the ultras. Now they are, unbelievably, on the center stage of history. The ultras have done nothing less than propel the Egyptian Revolution back into the Egyptian streets.

A version of this article first appeared in The Nation.

Dave Zirin is the author of "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love" and just made the new documentary "Not Just a Game".

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


Was football riot orchestrated to inflame Egypt?
Former regime accused of collusion in stadium catastrophe, reports Alastair Beach in Cairo
Sunday 05 February 2012

The president of the Egyptian Football Association and his entire board of directors resigned yesterday, having already been fired by the Prime Minister after last week's riot at a game between Port Said and Cairo left more than 70 people dead.

Samir Zaher, the EFA president, was also said to have been banned from leaving the country pending an investigation into the Egypt's worst incident of football violence.

Scores of fans of the visiting Cairo club Al Ahly were crushed to death as they tried to escape from marauding thugs who poured on to pitch after the home team Al Masry's unexpected 3-1 victory. Others were stabbed to death, according to health officials. Still more were clubbed senseless.

The catastrophe sparked rioting across Egypt that has claimed another 11 lives and has the potential to wreck the country's fragile transition to civilian rule.

Despite the resignations, the cause of the disaster remains a mystery. Egypt's Interior Minister has blamed chanting fans for triggering the violence saying the attacks began after a prolonged volley of insults between the two groups of supporters. But MPs, activist groups and thousands of protesters point to a darker explanation.

Al-Ahly fans arriving at Port Said's stadium last Wednesday night, were surprised at the lack of security. According to fans who spoke to the Independent on Sunday, none of the supporters was searched for weapons when entering the ground an almost unprecedented security lapse for a top football match in Egypt. "Everybody is usually searched before going into a game," said one. "Especially if you are from Cairo."

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading Cairo-based NGO, confirmed the low-level security. Researchers trying to establish what happened that night, were told that there was an extremely thin police presence in the stadium despite outbreaks of street violence before the same fixture last year.

When violence erupted after the final whistle, television images showed lines of riot police standing watching as the pitch was invaded.

Port Said fans were seen pouring through steel gates that are usually kept locked, but which mysteriously appear to have been opened during the match.

It has also been noted that the governor of Port Said and his chief of police, who would have been expected to attend such a high-profile clash, were not present.

This feeds into a narrative being spun by some people in Egypt that those killed were not victims of happenstance. They were, it is argued, pawns in an elaborately plot to foment exactly the kind of unrest which is now spreading across the country.

One Al-Masry supporter, Ahmad Osama, 23, said that many of those allowed into the game were not the usual fans. "The people who did this were not Port Said supporters," he said.

Mohamed Ehad, of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, agreed. "There were a lot of strange people at the game," he said. "Some were armed, some had knives. Some entered the match at half-time, which is not usually allowed in Egypt."

Al-Ahly fans said their attackers had not seemed like normal football supporters. "Some of them looked like thugs," said one, who asked not to be named.

"They were carrying weird weapons like knives and swords."

Doctors said that many of those killed died in a stampede, crushed as thousands of fans tried to escape through a single corridor, the door to which had been padlocked during the game. Others suffered knife wounds. "When I went to the morgue in Cairo, I saw at least 25 bodies which had been stabbed," said one fan, who had joined families looking for missing loved ones.

Human rights groups and politicians say all this indicates collusion, with loyalists of the former president Hosni Mubarak employing thugs to wreak havoc on Cairo fans, many of whom have led protests against the ruling Military Council.

They point to the widely-acknowledged nexus between the ruling establishment and networks of criminals who for years were recruited to do the regime's dirty work.

Bassem Samir, executive director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, said that prior to the 2010 parliamentary elections, his organisation found evidence of links between Port Said police chiefs and the criminal underworld. Gangs of "baltageya", the regime-sponsored thugs deployed to intimidate protesters, were given a share of Port Said's duty-free business in exchange for their services.

Mr Samir believes a similar arrangement could be behind the football violence. "One way or another, it was planned." he said.

Evidence directly implicating Mubarak-era figures emerged over the weekend. Reports in the Egyptian media claimed that two men with close ties to Gamal Mubarak, the former president's son, who at one time was expected to succeed him, had been identified as being linked to the killings.

The reports said that a man apprehended by Port Said locals after the violence claimed he had been hired by Gamal Omar, a billionaire businessman, and Al-Husseini Mahmoud Abu Amar, a former member of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

The claims, repeated on the Muslim Brotherhood's website, have not been verified, and Mr Omar issued a statement on his Facebook page denying any involvement. Yet with violence continuing to grip the country, it seems many activists are convinced that Egypt's establishment still has questions to answer.

Genuine fans certainly believe that. On Friday night, I spoke to one Cairo supporter, his head bandaged, as he left a funeral for one of the 74 fans who died. "I remember reading a statement on the opposition website before we arrived from Cairo," said the man, who asked not to be named. "It said, 'if you are heading to Port Said, just say goodbye to your mothers'."

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