The defiance and bluster among Egypt's militant soccer fans following the death of at least 74 people in a stadium in Port Said betrayed a sense of foreboding: The "ultras" the hardcore fans who express their team identity in street battles with rival fans as much as by cheering from the bleachers are bracing themselves for an existential confrontation with the security forces.
Five years of almost weekly confrontations with the security forces, inside stadiums and then, over the past year, in Tahrir Square and the streets of major cities in the course of the rebellion that forced out President Hosni Mubarak, have left the ultras with open accounts to settle, and with reason to believe they're being targeted by the authorities. And that sense has hardened their resolve to fight.
The tragedy in Port Said where fans of the highly popular Cairo club Al Ahly SC clashed with those of Port Said's Al Masry SC, has prompted a frenzy of speculation alleging a setup by the authorities to undermine the ultras popularity and break their bare-knuckled resistance to continued military rule in Egypt. The truth behind the incident may never be definitively established, and could well lie somewhere between assertions that the fans themselves instigated the violence, and allegations that they were deliberately provoked.
One of the great untold stories of the revolution that overthrew Mubarak is the fact that football ultras were the rebellion's shock troops. The historic hatred between supporters of Al Ahly, founded in the early 20th century as the club of nationalist opponents of British colonial rule, and its arch rival rival Zamalek, the club of the Brits, their Egyptian allies and the monarchy, was eclipsed only by their loathing of Mubarak and his security forces. When the revolt began, they set aside their differences in a common fight against the dictator.
Fearless and feared, battle-hardened from years of fighting the police, the ultras were in the vanguard that broke through police barricades on January 25 of last year, the first day of the anti-Mubarak protests, creating the breach that allowed protesters to occupy Cairo's Tahrir Square. That was a milestone moment in helping Egyptians break the first barrier of fear of the consequences of publicly expressing their rejection of the Mubarak regime.
Once on the Square, they applied their knowledge of street warfare to hold it: It was the ultras that manned the outer perimeter and entrances to the Square, and with ferocious resolve and impressive tactical discipline they repelled the attacks by security forces and Mubarak loyalists that followed, hurling rocks and projectiles at security forces, throwing tear gas grenades back into the ranks of the police and convincing protesters around them to stand their ground in the face of the regime's assault.
In the months that followed, the ultras were also in the forefront of storming the offices of Mubarak's hated Central Security Force (CSF), the September ransacking in September of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the bitter street battles in November and December in the vicinity of Tahrir that left more than 50 people dead and more than 1,000 wounded, and repeated clashes in stadiums that prompted Egypt's soccer association, at the instigation of the Interior Ministry, to penalize the clubs.
Yet, as the majority of Egyptians grew weary of protests and yearned for normalcy and economic recovery as the year wore on, the ultras began to lose popularity. The revolutionary youth protestors that had been at the core of the revolt still looked to the soccer fans as their protectors, but that simply put them together on the losing side of the competition between confrontational street politics that sought to sweep away the remnants of the regime, including the Mubarak-appointed generals that currently rule Egypt, and the electoral politics and associated political horse trading that put the initiative in the hands of the military, and of long-established opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood who had the experience, skills and organization to dominate at the polls.
In some ways, the ultra organizations often founded by educated, highly-politicized students and professionals, many of whom proclaimed themselves anarchists were victims of their own success. Their ranks swelled with thousands of less-educated, disaffected and often unemployed youths motivated less by politics than by a desire to repay the security forces for years of abuse and mistreatment.
The warning signs had been there for some time. Ultras stormed the pitch in April last year in the first African championship match between Zamalek and Tunisia's Esperance Sportieve du Tunis played in Cairo in front of a crowd admitted free of charge. Police presence that day had been minimal; for the first time in their history, the ultras owned the stadium. In the 90th minute of a game that was hard to follow through the fog of fireworks, flares and smoke guns, the fans led by a charismatic uneducated young man stormed the pitch in protest against a decision by the referee that would have cost Zamalek the game.
Leaders of the Zamalek ultra group were stunned, and admitted that they had lost control that day last April. Then, as in the wake of Wednesday's Port Said debacle, the police were accused of staying away to encourage an incident that could be used to demonstrate the need for harsh police action. In Port Said, many ultras believe, the military shared that objective, seeking to undermine the standing of some of their most militant challengers.
Al Ahly and Zamalek had been scheduled to play one another on February 7 (the authorities have now canceled all games until further notice), and the ultra leadership on both sides had recently declared that they would not fight one another, but instead reserve their rage for the common enemy. In a statement on its Facebook page the Zamalek ultras, Ultras White Knights (UWK) called on their Ahly counterparts to declare a truce. "We are asking for an end to the bloodshed and to reconcile and unite for the sake of Egypt," the White Knights said. Ultras Ahlawy replied with a smiley.
The violence in Port Said will mean the rival ultras will need one another more than ever. Following Wednesday's tragedy, Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi vowed to hunt down the perpetrators, portraying himself as protector of the victims. And Tantawi is likely to have public opinion on his side. Whether provoked or not, the ultras may have achieved the opposite of the goal that has united them over the past year: Rather than sweep away the remnants of the ancien regime, they may instead have helped consolidate the military's authority in an order deemed acceptable to a majority of Egyptians.
James M. Dorsey is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.