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Football, death & politics: how fans might spark another Egyptian uprising

James M Dorsey | Updated on: 20 June 2015, 18:39 IST

The crackdown

  • Former Egyptian president Morsi and 90 others sentenced to death by an Egyptian court.
  • 11 members of a football group, called the Ultras, also sentenced.
  • The offence: a brawl in Port Said in which 74 football fans died.

The resistance

  • The Ultras have been driving anti-government protests in Egypt. In 2011, the Ultras were the first-line of defence at Tahrir Square.
  • Sentencing them to death may be a miscalculation by the authorities.

The fallout

  • This crackdown on football fans and students may fuel another uprising.
  • The drawback: Ultras now fear they are losing their young people to ISIS.

An Egyptian court upheld a death sentence this week against ousted President Mohammed Morsi and 90 other Muslim Brotherhood members.

The ruling has sparked more outrage abroad than in Egypt, where a slew of death penalty verdicts have been handed down since the army took power in July 2013.

This month, the death penalty has also been given to 11 football fans, members of a football fan group called the Ultras, which played a key role in the 2011 revolution.

The 11 Ultras have been held responsible for a politically loaded brawl in Port Said three years ago in which 74 other football supporters died.

The Ultras have now been banned as a terrorist organisation and many of its members have also been given long prison sentences.

This is a clear bid by the army to break the backbone of anti-government protests.

A military misstep?

But the military might have miscalculated in taking on the football fans.

The Ultras have been at the core of anti-government protests in Egypt for almost a decade.

Over the last two years, they have been the main drivers of student protests against the general-turned-president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who toppled Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president.

The death sentences against the Ultras are likely to have a greater impact in Egypt than those against former President Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood politicians.

The Egyptian military might have miscalculated in handing out death sentences to football fans of Ultra club

Football fans along with students have played a central role in Egypt's politics. It is their activism, which sparked the 1919 revolution that three years later led to Egyptian independence.

Fast-forward half a century and the two groups are back on the frontlines.

The Ultras grew to be one of Egypt's largest social movement groups, stretching from the 1980s till today. The group morphed into a highly politicised, well-organised group with a command and control structure used to taking on the authorities.

They also became battle-hardened as they took on the security forces and the police in regular post-match clashes in stadiums and on the streets.

Politically motivated youth

During the 2011 revolution, the Ultras formed the front-line of defence against security forces in protests at Tahrir Square, on university campuses and in residential neighbourhoods.

They used tactics similar to those in football matches - chanting, jumping up and down and using flares and fireworks. The Ultras also have branches in most Egyptian universities. In the last two years alone, 17 of their members have been killed in clashes with security forces.

Ahmed, not his real name, a leader of the Ultras and a driver of the protests against military rule, has 67,000 followers on Facebook.

He has been expelled from university and sentenced to prison twice in absentia. Ahmed has gone from being football fan to fugitive and now moves around Cairo in a protective cocoon, speaks in a low voice to avoid being overheard, and regularly looks furtively over his shoulder.

Students and football fans have played a key role in Egyptian politics, from independence to anti-govt protests

Ahmed declares: "To us football is politics, politics is in everything. That's why we tackle politics."

He elaborates: "We don't like violence but we are not weak. Hope keeps us going. This regime is more brutal but there still are options. Success for us is our survival and ability to keep trying. We are the generation that staged the revolution."

Yusuf, an Ultra, who is also a 22-year-old student of Islam at Cairo's prestigious Al-Azhar University, adds: "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 realise that there are still voices out there that are not giving up and are keeping protests peaceful despite all that has happened."

Threat from the ISIS

Ahmed and Yusuf admit that they are fighting multiple uphill battles where the odds are stacked against them.

The Ultras are not only facing a military crackdown. They are also being confronted by competition from ISIS, which is beginning to attract some youth who might have joined them.

An Ultras member who doesn't wish to be identified explains: "The youth have nothing to look forward to, leaving them hopeless and desperate. They join our protests, but their conversation often focuses on admiration for ISIS. 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."

The Egyptian military has so far been successful in clamping down on all its opponents - from the Muslim Brotherhood to youth activists and the Ultras.

But the reaction to the crackdown is growing. And it increasingly looks like it will be channeled through the youth, either through football fan groups such as the Ultras or via ISIS.

The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 19 June 2015, 1:37 IST
James M Dorsey @mideastsoccer

A senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of theInstitute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg, he's the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.