You probably know that, on Wednesday, 71 people were killed and more than 300 injured in violence at a football match between Cairo's Al Ahly, and Port Said's Al Masry. At a game anywhere else in the world, a casualty list like that would most likely have resulted from a combination of ailing stadia and a spontaneous outburst of mass fury at events on the pitch. But in Egypt, the story is shot through with pre-existing layers of suspicion and resentment. At the centre of it all are the 'ultras' – hardcore fan groups – and their long-running vendetta with the police and army. Since the tragic events of Wednesday night, more demonstrations against the government have taken place around the country, and the death toll is ticking up, with at least another three dead so far.
Injured Al Ahly fans arrived back in Cairo at 5AM on Thursday morning, to be greeted by thousands of supporters packing out Cairo's main train station.
A lot of people were holding back tears. We thought that things might kick off that night, as the friends and family of the dead were furious. But in the end, they drifted off, and reassembled for a march from the Al Ahly ground to the Ministry of the Interior the next day, Thursday.
The Interior Ministry controls the Central Security Force (CSF), the main riot cops here. So predictably, the ultras and others protesting about the deaths squared off against them.
A few minutes before the clashes started.
Fans light a flare at a rally near the Interior Ministry.
Things were surprisingly peaceful for a while, but suddenly the anger spilled over. A lot of people had lost friends in the crush at Port Said, and most people seem to blame the CSF or the military council which rules the country. To understand why, it helps to understand a bit about the ultras, and their deep-seated hatred of the police.
Revolutionary ultras chase the CSF down the road. A few seconds later, we were driven back by a huge volley of tear gas.
The ultras took their name and their honour-code from the terraces of 1960s Italy: fanatical support for the club, no grassing to the police. Unlike football fans in England, whose political reputation is largely based on lager and racism, Egypt's do their street-fighting against military rule. My friend Mahmoud is a a member of Ultras Ahlawy, dedicated fans of Al Ahly, the most successful club in Egypt. He missed the match on Wednesday, but I spoke to him about the ultras, and what he makes of the violence.
VICE: The ultras formed in 2007, but how did you lot stop fighting each other and start fighting the police?
There were two turning points. One was after a fight in 2008 with fans of Zamalek where one of their guys got set on fire. He got covered in petrol thrown by one of his own side, and then someone threw a flare. The security services tortured some of us. The other was when they tried to stop us sending a message of support before a game for Palestinians during the massacre in Gaza in 2009. After that, we printed T-shirts saying “all cops are bastards”.
ACAB: international ultra slang for 'All Cops Are Bastards'.
But you guys aren't hooligans, right, you're ultras and that's different?
Ultras are a bit more peaceful. We're mainly concerned with how we support the club. We don't do anything that would reflect negatively on the club. Hooligans just want to attack the other team's fans. But we don't have any hooligan groups in Egypt.
Dozens of people were carried off unconscious, and loaded onto motorbikes or ambulances. Ad hoc marshalls kept a path clear for them.
So what happened when the revolution broke out?
Most of our guys met randomly in Tahrir square after fighting with the police on the first day. And the next day, after we'd all been forced out, we got together with some ultras from another team, attacking the police just to tire them out. Two days later we took the square back for good. And we fought in the 'camel battle' the next week. In the fighting in November, a lot of our guys were killed. Ultras at the fighting on Mohammed Mahmoud St in November.
The day of the disaster at the Port Said match was the one year anniversary of the camel battle?
Yes. We think there are certain people who want revenge against the Ultras Ahlway. We are holding Tantawi [the leader of the military junta here] and the Interior Ministry responsible.
While the CSF were occupied, activists set about demolishing the wall on Mohammed Mahmoud St, levering and pulling the huge 1m square concrete blocks to the ground. Destroying the wall made it easier to get the wounded out, and escape from the gas at the Interior Ministry.
There were some chants on Wednesday night of kussumak Port Saidi, which means something like 'Fuck you Port Said', but ruder. But a lot of people yesterday were trying to push different chants, and there were definitely a lot more calling for the downfall of the government. Do you think Port Said fans do bear any responsibility for this? A mate of mine from Port Said says he spoke to the Al Masry ultras, and they claim they weren't involved.
It makes no sense that their fans would attack after they won 3-1. Probably some of their fans were involved. But how did weapons get into the stadium? And why did the Central Security Forces stand by and do nothing? It seems that somehow they gave some keys to some thugs so they could get through the gates onto the pitch. The CSF hate the ultras, and especially Ultras Ahlway, we know that much.