Ultras -- good or bad?
From stadiums to public squares, the rabid football fans have gone from football to the frontlines of demonstrations. Ahmed Morsy traces the transformation
Though they are best known as football fanatics, the Ultras added to their notoriety by taking to the political street after playing a leading role in the 25 January Revolution.
Throughout 2011, the Ultras' out-of-stadium appearances were a hallmark, featuring in the frequent confrontations with security forces after taking part in protests -- though not all -- whether they were in Tahrir Square or other liberation sites.
Five years ago, when Ultras Ahlawi of Ahli and Ultras White Knights of Zamalek -- the two biggest football clubs in Egypt -- were formed, their rhythmic tune as they supported their local teams became a stadium show in itself. Perhaps they are not recognisable by face, but certainly by their unique chants and elaborate displays.
"We don't have a songwriter. It's all about teamwork," a founder and member of Ultras Ahlawi told Al-Ahram Weekly. During football games, Ultras use loud musical instruments while chanting to support their team.
"Everything we do comes from within our group," said the member, who preferred to remain anonymous since according to their rules, Ultras refrain from talking to the media and never speak in public. For him, since their performances is all about teamwork, so none of the Ultras members take credit for their chanting or any other action.
The Ultras are supporters who have plenty of support. "I'm upset because I did not play during their time," Nader El-Sayed, a notable retired Egyptian goalkeeper, told the Weekly.
"They enhanced the atmosphere of stadiums and the performance of our football by their spirited way of supporting teams," El-Sayed, who guarded Ahli and Zamalek goals, added.
Haitham Farouk, a former Egyptian international football player working as a TV presenter, also believes that the Ultras had a positive influence on Egyptian football.
"Supporting their team wherever, at home and away games, and whenever, when their team is the winner or loser, is a unique feature in our national stadiums," Farouk told the Weekly.
Nevertheless, shortly after the revolution began, the Egyptian national league was on fire as Ultras continued to set off light flares and fireworks in stadiums during games despite repeated warnings and punitive measures. Moreover, in some games, Ultras not only lit flares but waved banners insulting the EFA and its chairman, describing them as "remnants of the corrupt Mubarak regime".
Clubs, most notably Ahli and Zamalek, were ordered to play some of their matches behind closed doors, others in neutral venues, while still others were fined. However, nothing worked after which the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) decided to rely only on fines, powerless to do anything else.
Hostility towards the police is one of the Ultras' darker sides. They are constantly being blamed for clashes with security forces before and after the revolution.
"During the days of the deposed regime, if you had been to a stadium and seen how some of the mounted policemen whipped fans for no apparent reason, you would have understood the nature of the relationship between the police and Ultras groups," Ahmed Ezzat, a member of UWK, told the Weekly.
"The brutality which the fans in general and Ultras specifically have long been subjected to was behind the awful relationship between both sides," Ezzat said.
"Ultras will intervene whenever they see police brutality anywhere, be they or others the victim."
El-Sayed believes the brutality of the police forces during the era of ousted president Hosni Mubarak was enough for such groups to defend themselves. "Police forces adopted a culture of cruelty while dealing with them and the excessive use of cruelty worsened the relationship."
The Ultras might stand out because they are a sizeable group, but they are not really unified when it comes to politics. Some Ultras members come from across the political spectrum; others are totally apathetic, according to the anonymous Ultras Ahlawi source.
"Like any other community, Ultras members are all kinds of people. Outside the stadium, they move and act as individuals. They only appear as one body when they all agree on one thing, which sometimes happens."
During the 18-day revolt last year which toppled the regime, Ultras members decided to hit the streets as individuals yet became a full force. And after singing football chants inside stadiums, they began to belt out political chants which got them large public as well as media attention. Later, they were present at demonstrations, assisting and cheering on other protesters and activists in their ongoing battle against the authorities, protecting them from police and army attacks.
"Demonstrators always welcome the Ultras members in Tahrir Square," El-Sayed, who was occasionally carried on the shoulders of a demonstration of thousands, said. "They are well organised and are not looking for any media attention," he added.
Like the rest of youths, they resist in hard times Òê" but slightly more. They were perceived to be companions in the revolution and strongly supported the revolutionaries all along, he added.
Farouk believes that one cannot be sure about the role of the Ultras in the revolution. "We can't judge their role since most of the revolutionaries are youth and it is hard to figure out what they are like."
The political chants have been sung not only at protests and sit-ins over the past year, but also during matches. "Being revolutionaries, like the rest of Egyptians, we are happy, when the time and place is suitable, to spread our message of freedom of speech for Egyptians to hear and see," a founder of Ultras Ahlawi said.
Some criticise Ultras for over enthusiasm and excessive violence as well as their lack of awareness following the fatal outcome of some clash between them and police forces. In December last year, a three-week peaceful sit-in was broken up and then turned deadly after a football game that led to 14 deaths and hundreds injured. All because of a football match played on a street that lies between the two buildings of the People's Assembly (parliament) and the headquarters of the Cabinet, where the riots erupted.
A month earlier, the Ultras were at the forefront of battles in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which branches from iconic Tahrir Square, and in which more than 40 people killed and hundreds injured.
The bloody incidents were put down to the football Ultras, especially those of Ahli, the country's most popular club.
As a result, Ultras Ahlawi's group on Facebook, which has more than 281.000 members, announced in a statement: "Since the beginning of the revolution, we announced that, as a group, we'll not participate officially in demonstrations because it is against our vision. And just as one can't force a member of the group to participate in the political scene, it's also impossible to deny any citizen his or her right to take part in whatever he or she believes is right for the sake of the country, and joins the protests in Tahrir Square.
"We are a group, but each one has his own beliefs and has his own freedom as to how to lead his personal life. And even though we played a role in Egypt's revolution in the beginning, it was an indirect role with our fellow citizens and we are proud of having done so."
In demonstrations the Ultras are often accused of throwing stones and burning public buildings, the turmoil possibly dooming their history and reputation.
"Ultras Ahlawi are a very well educated and cultured people. In these incidents I really do believe them when they say it wasn't them. Those we saw on TV are not the real Ultras. Those who throw stones are not Ultras or even revolutionaries," said the veteran Egyptian sports critic Hassan Mistikawi in a previous interview with the Weekly.
"We all saw them on 25 January and how they played a significant role in the peaceful demonstrations and how they were there to protect the protesters. They were very well organised and disciplined as they are in stadiums."
In addition to their football and political concerns, the Ultras have an artistic side; pop culture has also spread through the streets through their graffiti. The paintings capture the eye with bright colours and political messages. Instead of praising their football teams, like before, the walls used by the Ultras have gradually transformed into large canvases to honour those killed during the revolution and send out anti-regime messages emphasising that the revolt is still alive.
As organised as they are in their chants, the Ultras, too, seem to have a dedicated group of young artists who scatter onto every Cairo street protesting against the ruling army generals.
"We don't have experts or certified artists -- I hardly know anyone in the group with an artistic background -- but we exhibit some good talent in the art of graffiti," Ezzat explains.
Most of the graffiti splattered on walls across Cairo is purely the work of talented members who have messages to deliver."