Ultras, Anarchists, and Street Fighting in Egypt

As darkness fell on Friday, pro-democracy demonstrators across Egypt were digging in for a long night of fighting with police after a day of generally peaceful marches marking the second anniversary of the revolution that brought down dictator Hosni...

Jan 26 2013, 4:12pm

As darkness fell on Friday, pro-democracy demonstrators across Egypt were digging in for a long night of fighting with police after a day of generally peaceful marches marking the second anniversary of the revolution that brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak.

In a tragic repeat of events from the initial uprising, nine people were killed in clashes between police and protesters in the city of Suez, according to the state news agency. The first fatalities of the 2011 revolution had also taken place in Suez.

The violence was the latest in a seemingly endless series of confrontations between the disparate forces of the revolution and the still-unreformed institutions of the Egyptian state.

Skirmishes lasted for hours near the headquarters of one of those institutions: the Interior Ministry. On Yousef El-Gindi Street, where the government built a wall to keep demonstrators from approaching the ministry, the clashes settled by Friday afternoon into a violent, halting rhythm. The crowd of mostly young men and teenagers would approach the government wall blocking access to the ministry and hurl stones and the occasional Molotov cocktail at the riot police positioned on the other side of the wall.

Then, tear gas canisters would come streaming in from the other side of the wall, sending the protesters scrambling, hacking, and red-faced with pain. Twice, ambulances parted the crowd to evacuate unconscious youths who had been carried from the front line by their comrades. Police in riot gear appeared on a rooftop behind the wall, hurling rocks and debris down at the demonstrators. Fires were lit in the street.

During a lull between gas salvoes, at the intersection between Yousef El-Gindi and Mohamed Mahmoud Street, an elderly man in glasses approached me and asked where I was from. “America!” he exclaimed upon hearing my answer. “America is the one that gave the security the gas!” Before I could ask his name, another canister hissed through the intersection scattering the crowd again.

Similar scenes were unfolding in cities across Egypt. In Cairo, protesters also fought police outside the presidential palace, at the state TV and radio building, and several other points. Protesters also reportedly blocked Cairo’s subway trains. In Suez, television footage showed the provincial capital building in flames. At least one Muslim Brotherhood office was also reportedly set on fire. By evening, more than 260 people were injured, according to the Health Ministry.

More violence is expected in connection with the announcement of the verdict in the trial over the deaths of 74 people who were killed in clashes between fans of the popular Cairo Soccer team Al-Ahly and the local team in the city of Port Said. At least 30 people, including two police officers were killed in fighting in Port Said today after the court announced death sentences for 21 of the defendants in the soccer riot case. Families of the condemned attempted to storm the prison where they are being held.

Ultras Ahlawy, a secretive, anarchic group of hooligans whose street fighting experience was critical in turning the tide during the revolution, have been militant in their demand for vengeance on those they believe responsible for the deaths of their comrades. On its Facebook page, the group vowed to sow "chaos" if the court does not return convictions for the 73 defendants, including security officials, rival fans, and three officials from the Al-Masry club.

In anticipation of the verdict, the Ultras, whose robust football chants and brawling spirit are a key feature of many protests in Cairo, began a roaming campaign of mischief on Wednesday, blockading the entrance to the stock exchange, shutting down a subway station, and blocking the 6th October Bridge.

The Ultras also briefly appeared on Qasr Al-Aini Street on Thursday, where masked demonstrators used huge metal pipes to tear down portions of the wall erected by the security forces to contain protests. Demonstrators had already been exchanging volleys of rocks and tear gas for hours when the Ultras arrived with a roar, shooting flame throwers and beaming green laser pointers at the government troops on the opposite side of the wall.

Friday had been a largely peaceful display of force including a huge rally in Tahrir Square, by the movements opposed to the current government led by Muslim Brotherhood affiliated President Mohamed Morsi who alienated the revolutionaries in 2012 by giving himself sweeping powers and then rushing through a divisive constitution.

One march left from the upper-middle class Cairo neighborhood of Mohandesin, proceeding in the sunshine along the Nile Corniche and then across the 6th October Bridge, past the burned out shell of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters (torched during the uprising), to Tahrir Square.

The march grew in size and diversity until it resembled one of the demonstrations that many Egyptians remember from what is often referred to as “the 18 days” of the uprising against Mubarak: young and old, men and women, families. Hundreds of flags were unfurled. One man held a sign reading “Down with the Brotherhood’s occupation.”

The upbeat tone of the march masked an underlying current of bitterness among the demonstrators, many of whom expressed deep misgivings about the outcome of the revolution. 

Joining the march on Arab League Street, bank manager Nermine El-Tahri, 51, said she had returned to Egypt in 2008 after living for years in England, but was considering leaving again because she feared the Brotherhood’s further consolidating power and worried about the economy. “We had this revolution in order to do something for the poor,” she said, “But now it’s getting worse than before the revolution.”

El-Tahri was still walking with the march as it turned onto the Nile Corniche. She pointed out a bearded man dressed in a traditional galabiya tunic. Judging him a religious man, she said, “This is a sign that the revolution is succeeding.”

The man’s name is Nabil Abdel Rahmani, 45, and he is a sales representative at a confectionary company. “We don’t want a Brotherhood government,” he said. “We’re not happy with the Brotherhood and we’re not happy with Obama,” he said, launching into a tirade referencing he often-cited conspiracy theory of US backing for the Muslim Brotherhood, provoking applause from the surrounding crowd.

Photos by Jared Malsin


More from Egypt:

The Revolution Is Still Going on in Egypt 

Egypt's Second Revolution