James M Dorsey

Few groups are as well prepared to confront repressive police and security forces as Egypt’s football fans who constitute a pillar of the growing grassroots coalition of ordinary Egyptians demanding change and the overthrow of the country’s president Hosni Mubarak.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets for a second day in Egyptian cities, determined to ensure that the 82-year old Mubarak suffers the same fate as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled earlier this month by mass demonstrations.

Ben Ali’s overthrow has inspired protests across the Middle East in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and now the Arab world’s most populous state, Egypt. At least three people and up to 20, including police officers were killed on Tuesday in clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Tuesday was the day that Egypt normally celebrates Police Day.

Unlike the protests in most countries, fans in Egypt, particularly the ultras of Cairo side Al Ahly, have joined an alliance of youth activists, Islamists, and workers protesting against the government’s failure to alleviate poverty, eradicate corruption and provide jobs as well as its employment of repression and torture to stymie opposition.


The protestors are demanding increased political freedoms and an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule as well as assurances he will not be succeeded by his son, Gamal.

“What we saw on the streets yesterday (Tuesday) are not just Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathisers, but Egyptians at large; those are the Egyptians that you would see supporting the football national team – and their show of frustration was genuine and it had to be accommodated," a very concerned prominent parliamentary member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party told Egypt’s government-controlled Al Ahram newspaper.

Al Ahly issued a statement on Facebook earlier this week distancing themselves from the planned Police Day demonstrations as an organisation, but explicitly stating that their members were free to participate.

Modelled on Italy’s autonomous, often violent fan clubs, the ultras have a proven track record of confronting the Egyptian police. The police have repeatedly attempted to tarnish their militant image by saying that their ranks include criminals and terrorists.

The ultras see themselves as a release valve in a country in which the mosque and the football pitch constitute the only way to release pent-up anger and frustration. They are every authoritarian Arab regime’s worst nightmare.

Algeria earlier this month cancelled a weekend of matches in a bid to seal off stadia as a rallying point for demonstrations protesting rising commodity prices. Riots in Jordan late last year that left 250 people injured exposed a deepening rift between East Bankers of Bedouin origin and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

“There is no competition in politics, so competition moved to the football pitch. We do what we have to do against the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong,” said an Al Ahly ultra last year after his group overran a police barricade erected to prevent fans from taking flares, fireworks and banners into the stadium. “You don’t change things in Egypt talking about politics. We’re not political, the government knows that and has to deal with us,” he added.

In Egypt, the ultras are representative of the people demonstrating in Egyptian streets.

“Football is bigger than politics. It’s about escapism. The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law and five kids. He is paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes to the stadium and watches Ahly,” said Assad, a leader of Ahly’s ultras, “People suffer, but when Ahly wins they smile,”

Al Ahly board member Khaled Motagi, scion of the club’s first post-revolution chairman added in a BBC radio documentary The Power and The Passion that the club has given their fans reason to smile, winning the Egyptian title on 35 occasions and the African Champions League six times.