Many common factors gird the uprisings and protest movements in the Arab world: pervasive use of social media, occupying public space, and vertiginous levels of unemployment for the young. Then, there is football.
If this were not obvious before the events of Wednesday night at the football stadium in Port Said, they have made it so. At game’s end the Al-Masry fans conducted a huge pitch invasion heading for both Al-Ahly players and their “ultras” – organized fans – at the far end of the stadium. There were unusually small numbers of police, who simply stood by and watched. Over seventy people are reported dead and Cairo, home of Al-Ahly, is enraged and on the streets.
[In the video below, look at the 9:38 mark, where police come pouring in to the scene, in sharp contrast to what happened Wednesday.]
On the evening of the disaster I messaged with a number of Al-Ahly ultras on Facebook who made several claims:
- the attacks on players and fans was orchestrated by the army and the secret police;
- that the stadium exits were blocked, ensuring many deaths from crushing in the stampede to get out;
- that the police were briefed to stand aside and were deliberately understaffed.
Common sense, not conspiracy theory
It may sound odd to American ears, that a government would use a game to engage in brutal paybacks. But football in Egypt and across the Arab world is also politics. To me, these claims sound like common sense, not conspiracy theories.
Football has been politicized in the region since its arrival in the Middle East. It was a key element of the national liberation movements against colonial rule in the early twentieth century across North Africa.- the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) created their own national team in the years before independence.
In the years since, kings, prime ministers and generals have run football clubs, fixing games for their favorites and basking in reflected glory. Nasser, who helped overthrow the Egyptian monarchy and was the country’s second president, was also president of Al Ahly. Ben Ali in Tunisia favored Esperance, the Ghadafis backed Tripoli’s Al Ahly. These leaders were not above turning a blind eye to football violence when it suited them. Violent attacks on Algeria’s national team in Egypt in late 2009 (and vice versa) were overlooked by both governments.
Spreading the word
Over the last thirty years, the Gulf states have made massive investments in football to help legitimize their governments at home and advertise themselves abroad. This has culminated in Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup and the purchase of two leading European teams – Manchester City and Paris St Germain – by the royal houses of Abu Dhabi and Qatar.
Football bolstered authoritarian rule, but also popular resistance. In Egypt, football ultras in general and Al-Ahly fans in particular were a thorn in old regime’s side. In the dying days of Mubarak’s rule, Al-Ahly fans would display the sign “we can’t breathe.” Football became the only secular arena in which the state could be challenged and the unspoken could be said.
Ultra groups, led by some of the most educated and privileged Egyptian youth, not only generated gigantic displays of choreographed singing and art in the stadium but began to actively clash with the police, before, during and after games. These disaffected educated youth allied with football’s traditional constituency of the poor to create similar ultra groups in Tunisia and to lesser extent in Algeria and Morocco, too.
[Precision displays by fans at an Egyptian football game]
The ultras are here to stay
They graduated from nuisance to threat in early 2011 forming a key component of the early crowds in both Tunis and Tahrir Square. They were experienced in street fighting, social media and micro logistics. Since the fall of Mubarak they have continued to clash with the police, called for the friends of the old regime to be cleared out of football and formed their own political party, “My Country.” As Egypt’s revolution has ground to a halt they have attracted ever more disgruntled youths to their ranks.
Ultras aren’t the only football force that matters in Gulf politics. In Bahrain, footballers themselves were in the front line of the protest movements. National team players Alaa and Mohamed Hubail and Sayed Mohammed Adnan were arrested for participating in the violent protests that shook the country in February 2011. Their clubs promptly fired them. In Libya, some national team players joined the rebels, and the team provided an immense lift to the new Libya when it qualified, against the odds, for the African Cup of Nations. In Tunisia, political parties of all persuasions have rushed to attract footballers, and to join the boards of clubs.
But it’s the ultras that hold sway in Egypt. So it appears that Egypt’s security forces, still dominated by the old guard, are trying to put the genii back in the bottle by delivering a brutal lesson to their most persistent football adversaries. But after almost a century of highly politicized football that served their ends, they are unlikely to break the connection in Egypt or anywhere else.