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The Dirty Laundry Issue

How Egypt Made Soccer a National Security Issue

The government is cracking down on fans in what many believe is a campaign of revenge led by the state security forces that dominated Egypt before the revolution.

by Emir Nader
Nov 7 2014, 5:00am

Pro-Ultras graffiti in Maadi, an affluent district in Cairo. Photos by Karim Alwi and Diaa Adel

As the chairman of Egypt's Zamalek soccer club was leaving his office on August 17, 2014, he was the target of what he claims was an assassination attempt. Mortada Mansour told the authorities that he was attacked by his team's own fans, a branch of the country's highly organized soccer enthusiasts known as Ultras. In the weeks that have followed, approximately 50 Ultras have been arrested, some of them tortured, and now a movement that is made up of tens of thousands of young Egyptian men faces charges of terrorism. But I have spoken to lawyers, journalists, and Ultras who believe the crackdown involves more than the accusations of a powerful sports figure or an uptick in soccer hooliganism. Many feel it is a campaign of revenge led by the state security forces that dominated Egypt before the revolution.

The Egyptian attorney Tarek El-Awady leads the defense team for the Ultras. "There is absolutely no evidence for any of this," he told me. "Mansour had television cameras there at three AM and a lawyer in his office, as if they knew. His injuries, the doctor said, couldn't have come from a gun. He claims he was shot at fourteen times, but the police could find only one casing, five hundred meters away. The casing was from a shotgun, and it's impossible to hit a target with a shotgun from that distance."

I recently visited El-Awady's office, tucked away in a dusty backstreet of northern Cairo. The defense team he heads with Dr. Walid El-Kateeb is all that stands between these young men and the brutal Egyptian prison system. For a lawyer, El-Awady was startlingly bold in telling me that the allegations had been entirely cooked up: "The ten arrested weren't captured at the scene-their houses were raided after. How did anyone know who they were?"

El-Awady confirmed rumors of detainee abuse, saying, "They were tortured in the presence of chairman Mansour. The confessions forced out of them were broadcast on TV, and when the kids made it to the court they all denied it."

Attorney Tarek El-Awady, right, and Dr. Walid El-Kateeb, from the Ultras' legal defense team

When millions of Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 to protest under the chant of "Bread, freedom, and social justice," the response of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president for 30 years, was anything but warm. The citizens who marched to Tahrir Square, high on the dream that they could create a better country, soon met the bullets and batons of Egypt's only efficient infrastructure: the ruthless state security forces. It is yet to be proved whether the orders to shoot came directly from the top-that is, from Mubarak's desk-but what is known for sure is that victory came from the bottom. The Ultras played a pivotal role in taking over the streets and ousting the leader of the world's oldest nation.

Now, after four presidents and three years of upheaval, the feeling in the new Egypt under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former general, is not so much that things are back to the way they were as that things are worse. In the name of combating extremism, the government is suppressing any group that may voice dissent. The previously governing Muslim Brotherhood is now an official terrorist organization, and leftist activists, secularists, journalists, gay people, and NGOs are being made to fall in line or face imprisonment.

El-Awady told me more about the charges the Ultras are facing. Responding to the injustice they saw in the assassination arrests, Zamalek Ultras quickly gathered to demonstrate, the situation turned violent, and by the next day 78 had been arrested. Half were randomly let go, and the rest joined the hunger-striking journalists and activists jailed under Egypt's controversial new Protest Law, which effectively criminalizes any demonstration. Then, capitalizing on the hysteria, chairman Mansour went for the prize. He personally filed a lawsuit to have the whole country's Ultra movement follow in the footsteps of the Muslim Brotherhood and be officially branded an illegal terrorist network.

If the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination attempt turn out to be true, it won't surprise many. Mansour is a notorious figure from the pre-revolution establishment, a lawyer and loose-cannon television commentator who previously faced charges of orchestrating the bizarre Battle of the Camels, in which sword-wielding thugs rode into Tahrir Square and attacked protesters during the first days of the revolt. Mansour's time as chairman of Zamalek has inspired little enthusiasm among the team's Ultras White Knights: On October 12 he told the press that they'd thrown nitric acid on him as he prepared to unveil the team's new coach. The Ultras replied by posting a video of the incident on their Facebook page, informing him it was actually urine and calling him a "dog of the system."

El-Awady also believes that Mansour is a "tool being used by a bigger force" and that the security forces are flexing their muscles. "Their strategy is, if we can't control them, we'll put them in jail."

Many share the sentiment that the government is targeting the Ultras in order to put them in their place as a retribution for their displays of strength since the revolution. In early 2012 a match between Port Said's Al Masry club and the visiting Al Ahly team of Cairo became one of the bloodiest encounters in soccer history. As the game was ending, men from the Al Masry terraces invaded the pitch, leaped into the away stands, and set about attacking Al Ahly fans with knives, stones, and bottles. It was a bloodbath as people were thrown from the stands and fans died in the arms of soccer coaches hiding in the locker rooms. It didn't take long for questions to surface about how it had been orchestrated. Witnesses reported that the usual searches hadn't been carried out at the entryways, that the gates separating the fans had been opened, and that the lights had been turned off and the exit doors locked as people tried to escape. Many Ultras believe that baltageya (hired thugs) were present and that the security forces either ignored the massacre unfolding beneath their gaze or, much worse, watched their plan play out as intended.

Port Said is a tragedy that is deeply ingrained in the identity of Al Ahly's Ultras Ahlawy. Their 74 martyrs are commemorated on innumerable T-shirts and on many walls throughout Cairo. Since then, every major football game has been closed to fans, who can now only gather to watch matches on the TVs of cheap outdoor coffee shops. The convictions and death sentences handed down to those allegedly responsible sparked more armed street battles the following year, but with such strong suspicions of conspiracy it's hard to feel that justice has been served.

Ultras in Egypt have a long history of aggression-the biggest match of the season has been called "the world's most violent rivalry"-but as pro-ISIS crowds in Morocco are filmed chanting stadium hits, could the fan groups of the Middle East actually be breeding terrorists?

Whatever the motives of their violence, tensions will only increase if the government refuses to ease its grip. "The Ultras' main driver is soccer," James M. Dorsey, an expert on Middle Eastern politics and soccer, told me. "But the attempt to criminalize the Ultras, coupled with the ban on spectators and the mounting general repression in the country, is a recipe for escalation and radicalization."

I put the idea to two soccer fans, Nino and Mohammed, at a Cairo café where many Ultras smoke shisha and let off steam. "Nobody will ever forget the blood of their brother who has been killed in front of them, so of course they will want to take revenge," Mohammed said, though he added that few desire the ultimate form of retribution. "We don't want martyrs. We don't want to have to take revenge on someone, someone else's brother... But we don't know what to do. After the Port Said massacre we had hold of someone who was responsible, and people had weapons, but we couldn't kill him. We couldn't do what he did."

Nino shed some light on the shadowy logic he saw at work. "They are trying to push us to be more violent so instead of using a stick they can use bullets," he said.

Nino had been involved with the clashes leading up to the revolution, but given the current political climate, he was eager to distance himself from previous activities. He banged our café table with the anger of someone frustrated by a force bigger than he could challenge. "The thing is, I don't know whom I should be angry at-the interior ministry, the security services, people from Port Said... How can I define my anger toward them? I'm barehanded. I don't have the ability to face the people I should take revenge on."

When I asked them about the possibility of joint action from all of Egypt's Ultras against the state, Nino nodded as Mohammed told me that "we are all on the same page now. We have one case we are fighting for-to return to the stadiums, against the will of the government."

Back at El-Awady's office, I asked whether the Ultras could become more militant if the government's stranglehold on them continues. His response touched on the scale of what's at stake. "I hope it doesn't happen. I hope the government doesn't continue to push them, because at this point it could be a very critical situation. It could be a national security issue."

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