Egypt's Clashes Are Not About Football


The violence that erupted at a Port Said soccer game on Wednesday night left more than 70 dead and many more injured. It will be remembered as one of the turning points in the revolution.

Why? Because it has sparked what could be the terminal crisis for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been running Egypt since the fall of Mubarak almost one year ago. It could also be the beginning of the end for those currently running the Ministry of the Interior, the nerve centre of Egypt’s extensive network of internal surveillance and coercion.

The violence may have been committed by one group of football fans against another but much more is at stake here than just sport. Football clubs in Egypt have long had political undertones.

The two biggest teams in the country are Zamalek and Ahly. (It was Ahly fans on the receiving end of most of the violence in Port Said.) During the British occupation Zamalek was created as a rallying point for supporters of the monarchy and its imperial backers, whereas Ahly (Al Ahly meaning "the National") was the team of the anti-colonial nationalists.

The animosity between these two teams and between their fans, continued well after the exit of the British, reflecting a continued rift in Egyptian society. The Zamalek supporters are seen to represent the better-heeled, more cosmopolitan element of Egyptian society and Ahly supporters the more common and less sophisticated masses. Each club had independently operating, loosely organised groups of militant super-fans, called "ultras".

In the early days of the revolution, an historic truce was announced, and the two teams unleashed their aggression and extensive street fighting experience on the Egyptian police. During the famous January 28 "Day of Rage" and other important battles, the ultras — particularly the Ahly ultras — were credited with turning the tide. After helping topple Mubarak, they remained the foot soldiers of the revolution, facing off with police and sometimes the military and protecting the square.

It is in this context that the violence in Port Said occurred.

There is a general Arab tendency to weave complex conspiracy theories around the most chaotic events — but many would probably have seen a hidden hand at work last week.

Fans of the Port Said team Al-Masry were not searched on entry and could be seen in the stands with sticks and knives. The gates separating them from the visiting Ahly fans (who they significantly outnumbered) were opened and security forces abandoned the pitch immediately after the end of the game.

Perhaps most damningly, stadium lights were switched off and exit doors were bolted shut trapping hundreds in a tunnel where many of the deaths occurred. The jam was so tight the dead remained standing, held upright by the press of bodies. Elsewhere in the stadium outnumbered Ahly fans were thrown from the bleachers to their deaths.

Some suggest that instigators were placed among the Al Masry fans, who should have been happy having won the game against the odds. At any rate, there was plenty of latent aggression to be handled. The Ahly supporters reportedly unfurled particularly offensive banners during the match. These were seen as insults to the men of Port Said that needed retaliation. There are whispers of a reckoning down the track between the Ahly ultras and their Al-Masry counterparts.

The Ahly fans’ first target, however, is the ruling SCAF. The day after the massacre — which marked the first anniversary of the famous "Camel Battle" when pro-Mubarak men on horses and camels attacked the protests in Tahrir — the ultras (from both Zamalek and Ahly) and their allies from the Tahrir revolutionaries took to the street, converging once more on Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets.

Clashes soon began, with the now farmiliar routine of charges by the police with teargas, rubber bullets and birdshot, and counter-charges by the angry young men of the square armed with rocks, the occasional Molotov cocktail and an appetite for risk and confrontation. Leadership figures in the ultras have not endorsed the fighting. They have instead called for massive, peaceful, displays of strength and numbers. Their rowdier members (and there are plenty of them) however, have ignored their calls for restraint.

The Cairo battles have followed an almost daily ebb and flow like this. They look strikingly similar to the November and December clashes last year, and are fought on much of the same turf. At other times truces are called or the fighting simply runs, temporarily, out of steam. During one dawn visit to the front I found a group of only a few dozen young men facing off with a similar number of police. Men from both sides were gesturing obscenely and egging their opponents on. It was hard to see much more in the situation than an excess of testosterone and boredom on both sides.

These battles, however, whether they are big or small, are qualitatively different from those fought throughout last year. For the first time, the police — perhaps simply intimidated, and perhaps realising that every attempt at suppression has just brought the protesters more strength and support — are on the defensive.

Much of the fighting too is taking place in the streets near the Ministry of the Interior — all of which suggests that the ball remains firmly in SCAF’s half.

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