Breeding ground for heroes
What comes to mind when we hear about soccer fans banding together in organised groups and describing themselves as 'Ultras'? Violence for a start I suppose. Hooliganism. A suggestion perhaps of unsavoury extreme right-wing politics. At the very least, macho posturing which even when it's harmless still comes off as slightly silly.
But there is a country, or more correctly a club, where to declare yourself an Ultra is not an empty boast but an act of heroism. These Ultras have risked their lives for the cause of freedom and died in their hundreds. Their leaders have been thrown into jails notorious for the use of torture.
On occasion they have been the only thing preventing the forces of reaction driving those marching for democracy off the streets. One pro-democracy demonstrator says that when he and his friends were "trapped between security forces and civilian thugs, we tweeted 'where are the Ultras?' Within half an hour hundreds of uniformed Ultras joined the fight on the front lines and tipped the balance."
This is the story of Ultras Ahlawy, fans of the Cairo soccer team Al Ahly, who played a crucial role in the Arab Spring democracy movement and who today will be on the streets protesting against new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's decision to rule by decree, a step seen by many as the prelude to a full-blown Islamist dictatorship.
Ultras Ahlawy are no ordinary fans. But the team they follow is no ordinary team. Al Ahly is the Real Madrid of Africa, its seven Champions League victories is a competition record, the team which won the competition in 2005, 2006 and 2008 and finished third in the 2006 World Club Championship is probably the finest ever club team from the continent. They have won the last seven Egyptian league titles.
The Ultras organisation was formed in 2007, its name a tribute to the Ultras who follow European club teams. Yet it soon became apparent that their situation was very different to that of the fans they sought to emulate. To a repressive regime like that of President Mubarak, any independent organisation was suspect. "When the regime realised how strongly organised we were the hostility and war began," says a member of the Ultra White Knights, followers of Al Ahly's Cairo rivals Zamalek who also took part in the protests which toppled the regime.
Initially apolitical, the Ultras began to protest against police brutality, a corrupt educational system and the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The security forces responded by jailing their leaders, carrying out mass arrests at games with a considerable degree of brutality and painting the Ultras as extremists and criminals.
In reality, the Ultras represented a cross-section of Egyptian society. According to a well-known Egyptian blogger, who goes by the rather brilliant name of Big Pharoah, the Ultras "contain a mixture of both Christian and Muslim young men only seen in the April 6 movement which used Twitter and Facebook to occupy Tahrir Square. They are graduates of Jesuit schools, elite, working class, all thrown together."
And when the pro-democracy protesters battled the Mubarak regime's security forces on the streets, the Ultras played a crucial role. The Al Ahly and Zamalek fans joined forces, something which is a bit like Celtic and Rangers teaming up, given that the Cairo Derby has such a record of crowd violence that it's always played at a neutral venue with foreign referees.
The protests brought down Mubarak. But on February 1 of this year came what many saw as the revenge of the security forces on Ultras Ahlawy. Al Ahly fans at an away game against Al Masry of Port Said were attacked by armed home fans who stabbed them and threw them from the top tiers of the stand. Other Al Ahly supporters were crushed to death as they tried to escape. Seventy four fans died.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights have concluded that the police "were complicit in the killings". One of their researchers blamed the incident on "a security apparatus that is morally debased with no qualms about mobilising thugs to crack down on demonstrators". Shortly before the match, Ultras Ahlawy had marched in Cairo to demand that the interim military government resign. Egypt's notorious Interior Ministry was apparently unimpressed by such effrontery.
If the intention was to crush the resolve of the Ultras, it did not work. The football season was abandoned after the killings and Ultras Ahlawy insist that the next season should not start until those responsible for the Port Said massacre are brought to justice. The Ultra White Knights support this stance and say they will act in solidarity with their deadly rivals.
The loss of a football season is a considerable sacrifice for the Ultras. In the words of one of their leaders, "The average Ahly fan is a guy who lives in a one-bedroom flat with his wife, mother-in-law and five kids. He is paid minimum wage and his life sucks. The only good thing about his life is that for two hours on a Friday he goes to the stadium and watches Ahly. People suffer but when Ahly wins they smile."
Their search for justice had even brought the Ultras into confrontation with the club they love. Al Ahly's players are not so keen on a cancelled season with one notable exception, the club's star midfielder and Egypt's most popular sportsman, Mohamed Aboutrika, who in 2008 beat Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto'o to win the BBC's African Footballer of the Year award.
Aboutrika is a footballer of remarkable stripe. A philosophy graduate and devout Muslim, he is a tireless charity campaigner and is famous for once turning down a pay rise because he didn't want to be paid more than a team-mate he thought was undervalued. When protesters filled Tahrir Square, President Mubarak asked Aboutrika to ask them to go home. The player went and joined them instead. Assistant coach of the national team Zak Abdel says: "If he had done what he was asked, there probably wouldn't have been a revolution. People have that much respect for him." We're not talking John Terry or David Beckham here.
And now the Ultras are back on the streets again as Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist candidate elected President just a few months ago, indulges in a power grab which suggests that for the people who fought so hard to get rid of Mubarak, it may be a case of 'same cart, different driver'. When news came in on Wednesday that protesters at the Presidential Palace were being attacked by Morsi supporters, the Ultras, some of whom had initially welcomed Morsi's election, marched to their rescue. Before the current trouble is over, more of them will die as they fight for freedom , democracy and a country they can be proud of.
It's often said that the conditions in a city like Cairo make it a breeding ground for terrorism. And when we think of disaffected young men from countries like Egypt, we too often see them through a Western lens which descries only Islamist fanatics.
But what the story of Ultras Ahlawy shows is that Cairo and its football stadiums are also a breeding ground for heroes. Every football team in the world should raise a banner of solidarity with them as they battle on, showing courage those of us who live in more fortunate countries will never be called on to display. Let's face it, not a single Irish sportsman would dream of criticising the austerity budgets currently ripping the heart out of this country. And that wouldn't cost them anything or put them in any danger.
Ultras Ahlawy aren't perfect, they've been criticised for being politically unsophisticated, misogynistic and brutalised by the years of police repression. All the same I bet the pro-demoracy protesters were relieved to see them arriving on Wednesday.
And when Egypt finally wins proper democracy and there is justice for the dead of Port Said and the Egyptian League begins again, there is one team we should all cheer on in our hearts.
Football should be proud of them.
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