Soccer violence has played a surprisingly prominent role in Egypt's 2011 revolution and the protests that have flared across the nation in recent days. Tightly organized bands of soccer fans known as the Ultras were instrumental in the effort to topple Hosni Mubarak, and more recently they've stood at the forefront of the wave of bloodletting that prompted President Morsy to declare a state of emergency after more than 30 people were killed in the soccer-related riots in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. Since the Port Said fiasco, protests have continued to swell to the point that there has been serious talk of removing Morsy from power and installing an interim unity government.
The Ultras seem to be everywhere in these latest demonstrations, much as they were in all the protests that have taken place in Egypt over the past two years: Tossing tear gas canisters back at riot police, clashing with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and storming the presidential palace. But the violence now erupting across a nation that once stood front and center in the Arab Spring revolutions begs the question: How did a nebulous group of football fans evolve into a political force to be reckoned with?
James Dorsey, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has studied Mideast soccer culture for years. "The big picture is that all Arab autocratic regimes felt the need to control public spaces," he says. "There were many forms of dissent, but they were largely suppressed except for the mosque and the soccer pitch. With these two institutions, the numbers were too big and the emotions they evoked were too strong."
More from Democracy Lab
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
- The 'Cold Peace' Between Moscow and Washington Just Got Colder
- Too Many Stakeholders Spoil the Soup
According to Dorsey, the Ultras became the very first organization that dared to take on the much-despised Egyptian police force, making them irresistible to young men looking for a cause. Egypt's economic woes have created a huge population of uneducated and unemployed youths searching for purpose. As the Ultras' ranks swelled and their reputation grew, so did their hatred of the Egyptian security forces, whose brutal methods of repressing dissent were infamous. "Basically, for a period of four years prior to the overthrow of Mubarak, you had almost weekly clashes between the Ultras and security forces in the stadiums," he says. "They were fearless, they had nothing to lose, and they became battle-hardened."
Ahmed, one of the founding members of the Ultras Ahlawy, the Ultras' Cairo branch, says that, after their education in violence at the stadiums, it was only a matter of time before the Ultras moved to the forefront of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. The soccer fans weren't the only group targeted by the government, but they were one of the few with the organizational backbone to fight back. "So we started a group that was based on freedom, inside the stadiums and out. Our stance is that we never start violence, but if someone is violent toward us, we won't remain silent. We knew we had to be a part of the revolution."
For their part, many activists say they're grateful to have had the Ultras backing them during the 2011 uprising as well as in more recent protests. After suffering at the hands of the Egyptian police during the uprising, they seem to empathize with the Ultras' hatred of the security forces. "I think many people have this impression that the revolution was peaceful, but it really wasn't," says Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an Egyptian activist and correspondent for Democracy Now. "There was a lot of physical resistance that was necessary in order to overcome the security forces, and the Ultras were very important in that struggle."