Rallying against a new tyranny

Author and Nation.com sports columnist Dave Zirin provides the background on one of the forces involved in the unrest in Egypt: The soccer fan clubs known as "ultras."

Protesters rush a wounded man away from clashes with armed forces in CairoProtesters rush a wounded man away from clashes with armed forces in Cairo

IF YOU want to understand why Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has declared a "state of emergency" or if you want to understand why the country's defense minister recently warned of "the collapse of the state," you first need to understand the soccer fan clubs in Egypt--otherwise known as the "ultras"--and the role they played in the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Under Mubarak's three-decade kleptocratic rule, the hyper-intense ultras--made up almost entirely of young Egyptian men--were given near-free reign to march in the streets, battle the police and, of course, fight each other. This has been a common practice in autocracies across the world: don't allow political dissent, but for the young, male masses, allow violent soccer clubs to exist as a safety valve to release the steam. Mubarak, surely to his eternal regret, underestimated what could happen when steam gets channeled into powering a full-scale revolt.

After revolution in Tunisia spurred the Egyptian uprising, the ultras transformed themselves in the moment and played a critical role in securing Tahrir Square, setting up checkpoints and fighting off the police. This is not to say it was seamless. As one Egyptian revolutionary said to me, "In those first days, the ultras were indispensable. But the hardest thing, it felt like at times, was to keep them all focused on the goal [of removing Mubarak] and keep them from killing each other."

Distinguished by their uniform of skinny jeans and hoodies, they quickly became objects of admiration in Tahrir Square. "They stayed there in the square almost through 100 hours of fighting," said protester Mosa'ab Elshamy. "It's easy to notice them because of their use of Molotov cocktails, their extreme courage and recklessness, their chants. They became a common sight."

Their strength as a coherent and durable political force was seen after Mubarak was removed and a military junta assumed power. The ultras didn't dissipate, but remained on the front lines pushing for changes that would go beyond the cosmetic.

Then came Port Said. One year ago, 74 people died in clashes that followed a soccer game between visiting team Al Ahly and Port Said's El Masry. People were stabbed and beaten when El Masry fans rushed the field after their team's 3-1 victory. The majority of deaths, however, took place because of asphyxiation as Al Ahly fans were crushed against locked stadium doors. There is ample video evidence that shows the military and security forces were complicit in these deaths, either through inaction or worse.

As James Dorsey of the Middle Eastern Soccer Blog wrote, "The incident is widely seen as an attempt that got out of hand by the then-military rulers of the country and the police and security forces to cut militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fans...down to size."

This tragedy, however, immediately took on a political, anti-regime dimension. Instead of one ultra group pledging death to the other, they blamed the junta and their hated police. Diaa Salah of the Egyptian Football Federation said, "The government is getting back at the ultras. They are saying, 'You protest against us, you want democracy and freedom. Here is a taste of your democracy and freedom.'"

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THE CURRENT crisis stems from that moment. Last week, the verdicts came down in the Port Said "soccer riot," and 21 people were sentenced to hang. Not one of the 21 was from the state and security forces. The message was clear. Even though Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were now in charge, this government would be no different: protecting and defending their state at the expense of justice.

It is true that the Al Ahly fan club initially praised the verdict for providing closure for the families who lost loved ones, but this quickly soured into frustration. There was nothing to celebrate as the people in Port Said rose violently first in opposition to the verdict, then in opposition to the brutal state repression ordered by Morsi, and now in opposition to the regime itself.

As Dorsey wrote:

Neither the ruling nor government policy to date addresses an equally fundamental demand that both El Masry and Al Ahly fans share: the need for a thorough reform of the police and security forces. The riots in the wake of the court verdict constitute the peak of an iceberg of growing discontent in Egypt with the government's failure to hold accountable police and security forces believed to be responsible for the death of more than 800 protesters since mass demonstrations erupted two years ago against the Mubarak regime and to address the country's economic decline as well as Mr. Morsi's rushing through of a controversial new constitution.

The days of Morsi's reign are now being challenged in Cairo where on January 28 demonstrators battled police in street fights that lasted for hours. In Suez, thousands left their homes and marched at 9 p.m. in violation of curfew laws. And at Ground Zero, in Port Said, demonstrators declared their own state while thousands chanted, "Leave! Leave!" to Morsi, the same rallying cry used in the last days of Mubarak.

The future for Morsi is unclear, but what is clear is that the ultra clubs aren't leaving the stage of Egypt's history until there is justice and until those in the state and military apparatus are held accountable--not only for what took place in Port Said but for all the hundreds who've been killed protesting over the last two years. Since this latest eruption, 60 more are now confirmed dead, including Tamer al-Fahla, former goalkeeper of the El Masry team, and Mohammad al-Dadhwi, who played for Port Said's Al Mareekh team.

There will be more deaths to come, as Morsi seems determined to crush and not heed the opposition. The great tragedy is that as long as there is no justice, there won't be peace.

First published at Nation.com.