Ahmed (not his real name) is an Egyptian soccer fan—and a fugitive. He has been expelled from university, convicted twice in absentia, and sentenced to two long terms in prison. He moves around Cairo in a protective crouch, speaks in a low voice to avoid being overheard, and looks furtively over his shoulder as he organizes flash protests against the government of General-turned-President Abdel Fattah al Sisi.
Ahmed is a leader of a militant soccer fan group called Ultras Nahdawy (“ultra” is a term for a hardcore soccer fan first used in Italy). Like other such groups, it is constantly in danger of being banned by the Sisi government under new, sweeping anti-terror legislation that targets dissent as much as political violence. Ahmed sees Nahdawy, founded by soccer fans as a Muslim Brotherhood support group in 2012, together with the main anti-Sisi student organization, Students Against the Coup, as a healthy outlet for disaffected youth at risk of radicalization. “We don’t like violence but we are not weak”, Ahmad insists, sipping coffee in a hip café in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood. “Hope keeps us going. We believe that there still are options. We created options on Tahrir Square. This regime is more brutal [than the Mubarak regime] but there still are options.”
Yusuf Salheen echoes Ahmed’s words. A 22-year-old leader of Students Against the Coup, created in 2013 after security forces killed more than 600 people at a Brotherhood sit-in, he studies Islam at Cairo’s prestigious Al Azhar University. Salheen was luckier than Ahmed and more than 1,500 other students who have been detained by security forces, not to mention 2,000 others merely ejected from their institutions of higher learning: He defended himself successfully in a university hearing called to debar him. “We are absolutely concerned that if we fail things will turn violent. Going violent would give the regime the perfect excuse. We would lose all public empathy. We hope that Egyptians realize that there are still voices out there that are not giving up and are keeping protests peaceful despite all that has happened”, he said.
The concerns of Ahmed and Salheen are real. Sisi has brutally repressed all opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned as a terrorist organization immediately after the military coup in 2013 that deposed Mohammed Morsi, a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president. The crackdown has left disaffected youth with a stark choice: Either apathetically accept a status quo in which the government fails to offer them any prospect of a socially and economically viable future, or engage in violent resistance. The student groups and soccer clubs try to offer a third choice: nonviolent resistance.
With stadiums closed to the public for much of the past four years to prevent them from becoming anti-government rallying points, militant soccer fans have had fewer opportunities to live out either their passion for their team or their frustration with Egypt’s politics. Nonetheless, there are multiple potential flashpoints to watch in the coming months.
One is the final outcome of the retrial of 73 people accused of causing the deaths of 74 members of Ultras Ahlawy (fans of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC) in a politically motivated brawl in the Suez Canal city in 2012. The details of what happened in Port Said remain murky, but what is clear is that the national security forces manipulated the traditional rivalry between the Ahlawy and Masri fans and allowed the deadly brawl to proceed while ensuring that the Ahli supporters could not escape.
The accused include supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri SC as well as nine security officials and executives of the club. Many people believe that security forces began the brawl to punish Ahlawy for its role in toppling President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and opposing the military government that succeeded him. A court sentenced 21 of the Al Masri fans to death in 2013, sparking a popular revolt in cities along the Suez Canal that forced then-President Morsi to declare an emergency and deploy troops to the region.
A June retrial reduced the number of death sentences to 11, but appeals are still pending. They could well spark the next confrontation. Whatever the court finally decides, one set of ultras—whether Al Masri’s Green Eagles or Al Ahli’s Ultras Ahlawy—is likely to express their anger at the verdict. Al Masri fans have already protested against the June development in the streets of Port Said.
A second court case and potential flashpoint involves 16 members of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), supporters of Al Ahli arch-rival Al Zamalek SC, who are charged with causing the deaths of 20 fans at Cairo stadium in February. Prosecutor Hesham Barakat and Zamalek President Mortada Mansour have accused the UWK of having accepted funds from the Brotherhood in return for provoking the stadium incident. Barakat asserted that some of the alleged Brothers had confessed to planning and funding the incident in an attempt to dissuade foreign investors.
To many people, the charges seem trumped up. Cairoscene, an Egyptian news website, opined that the assertion of a conspiracy between the UWK and the Brotherhood “seems ridiculous, considering there was clear evidence that security was mismanaged. Fans were forced to enter through one singular metal cage, which ultimately collapsed. At the same time police fired tear gas at the crowds arguably fuelling the stampede that resulted in many of the deaths.” The charges against the UWK reinforced the conviction of the group, shared by other ultras, that the regime is targeting them. ”We have no confidence in the justice system or the government’s willingness to ensure that justice is served”, said one UWK member.
Meanwhile, the ban on spectators in Egyptian stadiums, which was at the root of the Cairo stadium incident, continues to keep unrest high among fans. Repeated attempts to reopen stadiums have stalled, with the government, the clubs, and stadium owners failing to agree on what kind of security would be needed to prevent a resurgence of anti-government protests within the stadiums. Testing the water before a relaxation of the ban, Egypt’s interior ministry agreed to allow 25,000 fans to attend a November 17 qualifier between Egyptian teams for the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Mali. The game took place without incident in a stadium secured by the Falcon Group, a private security firm closely tied to Sisi. (It provided security for his 2013 election campaign and began securing universities with rebellious student bodies in the same year, causing many deaths and even more injuries.) This success may lead to a re-opening of stadiums under tight security. However, alarmed by the attacks in Paris that included a stadium, Egypt’s authorities will probably follow Turkey’s failed attempt to depoliticize stadiums by introducing electronic ticket systems that register personal details of spectators.
The fans got a chilling reminder of how the regime views them from a leak to Al Jazeera earlier this year. On an audio recording, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, a member of the Morsi government instrumental in overthrowing it and facilitating the military takeover, is heard discussing with senior officers of Egypt’s notorious Central Security Force (CSF) how the government can crack down on protesters. He suggests that the CSF should shoot protesters using anything “permitted by law without hesitation, from water to machine guns.” The meeting on the tape is thought to have occurred not long before a major anti-government protest in November 2014, at which police killed at least four people.
Ibrahim goes on to say that no attempt at political change in Egypt would succeed without the support of the military and the police—in his words, “the strongest institutions in the state.”
Egypt’s first groups of ultras emerged in 2007, inspired by similar groups in Serbia and Italy formed by militant fans who found each other online. The European ultras expressed their aggressive support for their clubs and artistic appreciation of the game through intimidating chants, poetry, banners, fireworks, flares, smoke guns, and continuous jumping up and down during matches. The Egyptian fans took up these passionate (and dangerous) displays with enthusiasm. They also adopted the ultras’ analysis of the power system governing the sport’s professional teams. It defines the fans as a club’s only true supporters, the club management as corrupt pawns of a repressive government, and players as mercenaries who offered themselves to the highest bidder. The Egyptian fans embraced the ultras’ principle, “All Cops are Pigs”, as their own—a no-brainer in a country whose security forces, to many the face of a repressive regime, are its most hated institution.
The ultras’ power analysis emboldened them to claim ownership of stadiums in a country that tolerated no independent or uncontrolled public space, and put them in direct confrontation with security forces determined to uphold the established order. But the ultras had an advantage: they aimed at the Achilles’ heel of the Mubarak regime.
Aside from the mosques, the stadiums were the only public spaces that the government could not simply shut down entirely, because nothing evokes the kind of deep-seated passion in Egyptians that soccer and religion do. Eager to crush the threat but recognizing the political benefits of influencing one of the most important activities in the lives of Egyptian men, the regime had little alternative but to fight for control.
The ultras’ regular clashes with security forces in the stadiums made the games a magnet for thousands of frustrated and angry youth, turning the sum total of rival fan groups into one of Egypt’s foremost social movements alongside the Brotherhood and labor. By the time mass protests against Mubarak erupted in early 2011, the ultras had become highly organized, politicized, street fight-hardened shock troops who formed the demonstrators’ first line of defense against security forces, persuading the protesters to stand their ground in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Ahmed and Salheen hope to repeat that performance in an environment that is far more repressive and brutal than the Mubarak era. In a replay of the ultras’ role in the toppling of Mubarak and the protests against subsequent military governments, Ahmed and his fellow ultras form the front-line defence against security forces in demonstrations on campuses and in popular neighborhoods. They use the same tactics of chanting, jumping up and down, and using flares and firework they employed in support of their clubs. Security forces have killed some 17 members of Nahdawy, which has branches in most Egyptian universities, in the past two years.
Between protesting and avoiding capture (or worse), Ahmed and Salheen have their plates full. Scores of ultras and students are on trial for protesting on campuses and in neighborhoods during the past two years, as well as for soccer-related actions like the storming of Zamalek’s headquarters and Cairo airport’s arrival hall.
The regime targets ultras not only on the streets and in the courts but also in the military, which asks conscripts whether they belong to a militant soccer fan group. Those that respond affirmatively are singled out. “They were immediately ordered to do 100 push-ups during which an officer shouted at them: ‘You are the lowest creatures. You sacrifice yourselves for your club, not for your religion or country’”, a conscript who hid his affiliation recounted. At the same time, fringes of Nahdawy and Students Against the Coup’s audience of ultras and students have grown increasingly radical.
“This is a new generation. It’s a generation that can’t be controlled. They don’t read. They believe in action and experience. They have balls. When the opportunity arises they will do something bigger than we ever did”, said one of UWK’s original founders, who has since distanced himself from the group. He said that Sisi would be unwise to repeat Mubarak’s mistake of underestimating the groundswell of anger and frustration among Egypt’s youth at the closing of the stadiums to the public and at the security forces’ strict control over university campuses.
Acharismatic radical can rise fast in the loose organization of the ultras. Said Moshagheb, a mesmerizing, under‐educated soccer fan, was representative of the thousands of angry young men joining protests in Egypt—except he managed to oust the UWK leaders and founders in a dramatic coup in 2012 involving a melee on the pitch of an Egypt-Tunisia game. Arrested in April 2015, he was acquitted in May of charges that he had been involved in a plot to kill Al Zamalek SC President Mortada Mansour, but he remains imprisoned. Sources close to the ultras as well as Moshagheb’s family said the UWK leader had been under police surveillance for some time for smuggling arms from the Sinai, the home base for jihadi groups linked to ISIS.
Other soccer fans have travelled to join the terror group itself. A former leader of Ultras Ahlawi in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Rami Iskanderiya, joined the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, and married a Syrian woman in the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. A third ultra, Hassan Kazarlan, was in Turkey en route to Syria when he was persuaded to return to Egypt after security forces detained his father as a hostage.
Moshagheb, Iskanderiya, and Kazarlan exemplify one response to the repression of the Sisi regime and the violence that followed the general’s overthrow of Morsi in 2013. Groups like Ultras Nahdawy and Students against the Coup hope to stymie this response. But it is difficult, and growing more so.
“Take Alf Maskan [an Islamist stronghold in Cairo]”, said an ultra and student activist. “Alf Maskan is a traditionally conservative, Islamist neighbourhood. Youth have nothing to look forward to. They are hopeless and desperate. They join our protests but their conversation often focuses on admiration for the Islamic State. They are teetering on the edge. We are their only hope, but it’s like grasping for a straw that ultimately is likely to break.”
“Success for us is our survival and ability to keep trying. The government wants to provoke us into becoming violent. Two years later, we are still active. . . . We can promise only one thing: we will stay on the street. To us football is politics; politics is in everything. That’s why we tackle politics”, Ahmed explained.
Though they oppose the regime, the soccer fans are not partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Many of us are Islamists. I am a member of the Brotherhood, but that is not why we supported the Brotherhood. We don’t want to be inside the Brotherhood or the system. We supported Morsi not because he was a brother but because we wanted a revolutionary force to be in government. The Brotherhood was the only revolutionary force that had a candidate and popular support and was part of the  revolution”, Ahmed said. Since there is now no alternative in sight to the military dictatorship, Ahmed and his fellow fans will go their own way.
Back in the early 20th century, celebrations of Al Ahli’s victories by anti-colonial and anti-monarchical soccer fans often exploded into anti-British protests. Twelve years after the club’s establishment, university student fans led anti-British demonstrations during the 1919 revolution. That uprising, fuelled by deep-seated resentment of British manipulation of the economy, the heavily British-staffed bureaucracy, and the war-time requisitioning of Egyptian assets, led to Egypt’s independence three years later.
The chants of protesting student soccer fans a century ago reverberate today in updated form in universities that have become security force-controlled fortresses and in flash protests in popular neighbourhoods. Almost a hundred years ago, students adapted a song written by Sayed Darwish, an Egyptian singer and composer widely viewed as the father of Egyptian popular music:
“We are the students
We don’t care if we go to prison, nor do we care about the governorate
We’re used to living on bread, and sleeping with no blankets
Al Ahli against the British Rule.”
Today they proclaim that “the students are back,” a slogan inspired by a song by Imam Mohammed Ahmed Eissa, a composer and singer known for his political songs that focus on the plight of the poor.
Students shaped Egypt’s history again later in the 20th century, by rejuvenating the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s. The Brotherhood had been withering under a brutal crackdown by Gamal Abdel Nasser that had forced many of its leaders to go underground or leave the country, but after Nasser died in 1970, it slowly began to revive. “Even as they rebelled against the tenets of Nasserism, the youth of this period were the products of its socioeconomic policies, from increased urbanization to greater access to education. . . . The real story of this era revolves around a vibrant youth movement based in Egypt’s colleges and universities,” said historian Abdullah Al-Arian, author of Answering the Call, Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, in an interview with the online publication Jadaliyya.
For men like Ahmed and Salheen, however, the modern youth movement is less about the Brotherhood and more about aligning Islamists and revolutionary forces that run the gamut from liberal to conservative, from left to right, and from secular to religious in a united front against autocracy. “It’s not about Morsi; we have bigger fish to fry than Morsi. Most of us no longer believe in the slogan in returning Morsi to office. Thousands are suffering. I don’t give a damn about Morsi. Anything is better than this regime. There are two approaches, the reformist and the revolutionary one. We have seen dramatic shifts since 2011. Both Tahrir Square and Sisi’s junta were dramatic twists. I and many like me believe that another twist is possible even if that will take time,” Salheen said.
The uphill battle of soccer fans and students for political change is not only hampered by the government’s relentless repression. It also is stymied by the widespread apathy of an Egyptian public disillusioned by the failure of the 2011 revolt to bring reform, tired of political volatility, and desperate to see their country return to stability and trickle-down economic growth. These Egyptians may not be starry-eyed about Sisi’s ability to deliver, but they see no viable alternative.
As a shopkeeper in one of Cairo’s upmarket neighborhoods put it, “The protesters have nothing to offer. The government will crush them. Sisi is not perfect, but he’s all we have. What we need is stability to turn the economy around. If that means putting people in jail, so be it.”
This article appeared in The American Interest and is reprinted with permission.