Rabab El Mahdi examines the role of the Ultras in Egypt's revolution
Prior to the January 25 Revolution, an organized group of die-hard football supporters known as the Ultras seldom made headlines for anything but brazen behavior in the soccer field. More than a year and a half past the uprising, many regard the Ultras as Egypt’s courageous, pro-democracy revolutionaries. In her recent study of Egypt’s politicized soccer hooligans, Rabab El Mahdi, associate professor at AUC’s Department of Political Science, attempts to define who the Ultras really are and how they made the transition from a pseudo-fascist group to a revolutionary faction.
El Mahdi’s research takes into account data collected from both primary and secondary sources. Information on the movement was obtained through one-on-one interviews with members of the Ultras, personal observation of public events, analysis of Ultras-related statements and social media messages, as well as published and archived material dating back to 2008.
El Mahdi’s findings suggest that the 2011 uprising did not merely influence macro structures at large, but also had an evident impact on the nature and dynamics of social movements. “Prior to the outbreak of the revolution, members of the Ultras were characterized by political apathy,” explained El Mahdi. “In fact, they were much less concerned about politics than sports that they likely caused the Egypt-Algeria predicament, which led to very real diplomatic tension. During the revolution, they took on a completely different role. They were at the forefront of clashes with the security apparatus.”
According to El Mahdi, the Ultras’s transition to a revolutionary movement was instigated by hardships associated with their sports identity. “Ever since they came into being, the Ultras were a constant target for police brutality,” she said. “They have always been perceived as mobsters. When the revolution occurred, they began to realize that their misfortunes stemmed from the fact that Egypt was a police-driven state. The revolution, signaled by National Police Day, was about to change Egypt’s identity as such, and they were going to spearhead that change.”
When the movement first emerged in Egypt, the Ultras numbered a few thousand. Today, these numbers have grown exponentially. For Al Mahdi, the Ultras represent a new form of organization, one that parallels Leninist ideology. “The Ultras is the second largest, most organized group after the Muslim Brotherhood; there is power in numbers,” she explained. “As the events of January 25 unfolded, they realized that power does not lie with the elite. The masses had the upper hand, and they constituted a good majority.”
It was the year 2007 when the Ultras made their first debut in Egypt. Born out of a group of hardcore soccer fans known as Ahly Fan Club, the Egyptian Ultras, who take after similar movements in predominantly European countries, are famous for their conspicuous behavior, tantalizing banners and festive use of firecrackers in outrageous pyro shows. Their hardcore tactics are designed to provide support for their team as well as intimidate opponents. With the uprising, these ploys targeted a completely different enemy – the regime.
“Their game antics have also evolved after the revolution,” El Mahdi said. “The chants have become more forthcoming with clear and explicit political messages. At times, they would honor the martyrs of the revolution, while other times, they would criticize members of the police force and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Previously, these chants were strictly sports-related.”
El Mahdi, who first became intrigued by the movement through her encounters at Tahrir Square, suggests that there is a cross-class element to the Ultras. “They are not an identifiable group,” she said. “There is great disparity within this movement. It embodies the educated and the illiterate, the rich and the poor. There isn’t a single predominant trait amongst the Ultras.”
El Mahdi’s research findings also suggest that there is great variance in the different methods of communication utilized by members of the Ultras. These means were not just limited to social media and individual interaction, but rely to a great extent on neighborhood meetings, where members of the Ultras deliberate on their tifos, the Italian word for choreographed opening displays. “They held these meetings regularly before important games, and they discussed displays and shows,” El Mahdi said. “More recently, members of Ultras Ahlway rallied with pro-Zamalek members of the Ultras White Knights, resulting in several joint statements that condemned the Port Said events and commemorated martyrs. This is particularly interesting considering the deep-seated rivalry between them.”
As Egypt goes through this critical transitional phase, the evolution of the Ultras remains yet to be observed. “All indicators suggest that they will become more politically active,” said El Mahdi. “The exact mechanisms by which this will materialize are yet to be seen. The upcoming period will also present a more definitive and representative structure for the movement.”