Ultras, or organized groups of football fans, represented an influential faction of the Egyptian revolutionary multitude in 2011. The ultras’ long experience of street fights with police at stadiums aided the revolutionaries in achieving many victories over riot cops in the early days of the January 25 uprising and subsequently. And the ultras’ combat prowess was not their only contribution to the uprising. More important was the carnivalesque character of their resistance, which transformed the protest scene into something more colorful, vital, choreographed and performative.
In the years since the January 25 uprising, the state has taken punitive measures against all of the main participants. Journalists find themselves persecuted, detained and even killed; human rights defenders are defamed and threatened, their activities restricted; political activists are detained without charge or, when indicted, subjected to harsh penalties in trials described as travesties of justice. All of this is happening amidst a sweeping crackdown on gender and religious non-conformists.
Ultras have absorbed their share of the collective punishment. The two biggest Cairo-based groups — the Ultras Ahlawi and Ultras White Knights, who support the teams of the Ahli and Zamalek sporting clubs, respectively — have paid a particularly high price. Ultras Ahlawi members faced a horrific massacre in early February 2012, when 72 fans were killed in the Port Said stadium in clashes with supporters of the other team. The police and soldiers who were on the scene moved not a muscle to prevent the killings. Most of the Ultras Ahlawi believe it was a plot approved by the army and Ministry of Interior to get revenge for anti-army chants at the preceding match.
The regime has not forgotten the White Knights, either, sending the infamous Murtada Mansour to launch a fierce campaign against them. A frequent state proxy in attacks on political dissenters, Mansour once filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office accusing the satirist Bassem Youssef of defamation of character. In March, Mansour was elected chairman of the Zamalek club. From this post, and with the eager backing of media outlets that regularly demonize the ultras, Mansour declared that the White Knights are “delinquents” (shabab sayi‘a).
Already, in February, the state had banned spectators from attending local and sometimes also international matches in stadiums. Consequently, Ultras White Knights’ only opportunity to see their team play is at practice on the club grounds. After becoming club chair, Mansour barred the White Knights from watching practice, as well, claiming that ultras are “terrorists” who cannot be allowed inside the gates. He went so far as to electrify the fence surrounding the club to prevent ultras from climbing over. Mansour has tried to replace the White Knights by paying other fans to cheer on the team.
For ordinary fans, these punishments might be easy to bear, but ultras feel them as an existential challenge. Attendance at team practice is one of the most important signifiers of the club’s popularity; indeed, it is what differentiates a popular team from a corporate-sponsored one. For the White Knights, there is an additional sensitivity: Zamalek is one of the most expensive clubs and membership there is an expression of particular class status. The vast majority of the ultras are not club members, and normally they were not allowed on club grounds except to attend team practice. Even then, they had to enter via a side gate that afforded access only to the practice field — and not the other club facilities like restaurants and pools. It was also a common ritual for the ultras to go to club grounds to celebrate victories or to protest painful defeats. Deprived of even partial access to the club, the ultras have started to lose their sense of ownership.
Another front in Mansour’s campaign is his stated intention to sell the training grounds at the Zamalek club, Zamoura Stadium, named after the legendary player Muhammad Hasan Hilmi or Hilmi Zamoura, who went on to serve as club chairman. The White Knights have always regarded this historic spot as their rallying point. Mansour wants to tear it down and build a commercial mall in its place. The White Knights have strongly objected, claiming that Mansour is erasing club history.
From July to October, dozens of White Knights members were imprisoned on charges orchestrated by the club’s chairman. As the fight escalated, many anticipated that the ultras would back down, given with the hostile environment and the lack of support from their peers. The Ultras Ahlawi, for example, retreated from confrontation after the Port Said massacre, assembling only at matches and team practices. But the White Knights, as one of their leaders said, had nothing to lose and so they fought back vigorously. They have organized protests and flash mobs, issued press releases on Facebook and written parody chants mocking the chairman, whom they have dubbed kalb al-nizam (the regime’s dog). Their efforts culminated in mid-October when they videotaped a young fan throwing a bag of urine and feces all over Mansour. The chairman alleged that the bag contained acid and claimed an assassination attempt. With their constant pressure, the White Knights have not only embarrassed Mansour, but have also managed to get most of the detainees released against all odds. Zamoura Stadium is not yet sold.
The originality of the ultras’ repertoire guaranteed them these victories in the face of the club’s dull, obsolete techniques of repression. Ultras are still banned from most matches and the White Knights banned from attending team practices. A number of them are still behind bars. Nevertheless, the ultras’ struggles for their rights and the preservation of their club as they know are an invitation to all of us to revise what we consider revolutionary.