CAIRO – Sprinting down a side street in downtown Cairo, the group of young men are outrun by a hissing tear gas canister careening through the air, slamming into the ground beside them. They quickly raise their arms to their mouths in a futile attempt to avoid inhaling the gas. But one of the group turns in the direction of his pursuers, staring at them defiantly as he breathes in the gas as a show of strength.
In case anyone is wondering who the courageous young man is and whom he represents, look no further than the red, black and white flag of Al-Ahly waving to and fro amid the tumult and white clouds.
Al-Ahly is not a political or religious movement, but the legendary Cairo soccer team. And the man who is defying the security forces is an “Ultra,” a hardcore fan of the team. Like thousands of other Ultras, he has been putting forth his street smarts and penchant for confrontation with the police to join opposition activists in their fight against the generals ruling Egypt.
The Ultras and their role in the revolution came to the world’s attention earlier this month when two groups of them clashed at a Port Said soccer match between the visiting Al-Ahly team and the local squad, Al-Masry. At least 75 people were killed in the violence as security forces stood by, fueling a new round of protests against the interim military government.
Sitting and recovering from the sprint down the street, dodging birdshot and rubber bullets, a group of three teenagers sits off to the side. They dab their eyes with a vinegar mixture and peer slowly back down the street. Mahmoud is the eldest of the three and the leader. He holds an Al-Ahly flag in his left hand. The determination in his eyes belies the reality of the clashes. The 17 year old points to his leg, lifting up his pants to reveal wounds suffered in the past few days of clashes.
“They shot me five times,” he told The Media Line as he waited for his friends -- also Ultras -- to recover before heading back down the street. “We are here because our friends were killed and the police and military are responsible.”
In many ways, the Ultras have become the face of the most recent round of clashes with police that erupted following the soccer riot amid accusations that the government did little to discourage the violence or perhaps even encouraged it as a means of justifying continue military rule.
The Ultras’ flags and the fireworks they like to set off when they protest have become a common sight in downtown Cairo. On the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Mansour Street – the flashpoint of the recent battles between protesters and police – are graffiti memorializing the “martyrs” killed in Port Said.
Last Thursday, tens of thousands of Ultras arrived in Cairo to protest. The police were ready and waiting. They fired barrage upon barrage of tear gas canisters at the protesters, who in return threw rocks at the shielded and masked police. The clashes that followed in subsequent days have left Cairo in yet more chaos, with at least 13 people dead in the capital and Suez to the east.
Leading the protests have been the Ultras, football fans angered at the violence at the Port Said match. This isn’t the first time these football fans have taken to the streets. In fact, their presence in downtown Cairo has become common; their arrival marking an upsurge in confidence and determination among protesters.
Ahmed, a 41-year-old handyman from Aswan, arrived in Cairo on Thursday in the late afternoon to join the protests. “I get a lot of strength by seeing the young people determined to change this country for the better,” he told The Media Line during one of the truces on Mansour Street.
Once devoted wholly to soccer and street fighting, the Ultras have become politicized since the uprising to oust president Hosni Mubarak began last year. They were a major presence downtown during the six days of street battles in November. Their fireworks have become a mark of their will and strength. The rattle of rocks on metal pipes signals their readiness to battle. The Ultras’ motto is: “All Cops Are Bastards.”
In December, their strength became apparent after one of their fellow members was brutally beaten as the military cleared out a peaceful sit-in at the cabinet building in downtown Cairo. The Ultras responded with force, taking to the streets and throwing rocks, which turned into three days of bloody clashes that left at least 17 people dead.
The Ultras of Al-Ahly were founded in the late 1990s by a group of hardcore football fans who traveled around the country following their beloved club to matches. They were known for their virulent chants, feuds with other teams in the stadiums; and clashes with police. Historically, they confined their activity to sports stadiums.
That is, until January 25, 2011, when Egypt exploded in protest against Mubarak. They led the vigilante groups that guarded the entrances to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak protests. When Mubarak backers attacked the rally on camels a year ago in the so-called Battle of the Camel, it was the Ultras who fought back. As time went on, the Ultras became an integral part of the protest movement, taking the lead in many of the marches and showing their fearlessness in the face of violence.
Their political power, while ostensibly outside the mainstream of opposition movements, is unmatched by any group in the country. When the Ultras take to the street, the police are fearful.
One of their downtown Cairo leaders, a man named Gamal, led chants during the latest round of clashes, urging fellow protesters to remain strong and not back down in the face of police violence. He was at the Port Said match, he told The Media Line, and says the people he has spoken with are as angry as ever.
“We have been at the front of these protests for the last few battles with the police. Football is not political, but when the police allow -- even push -- for fans to attack others, we can no longer sit back and permit this to happen to Egypt,” he says.
“I want to go to a match and have fun. We are not a violent people, but the police and military want violence and we will protest for them to leave,” he says, resting on the sidewalk as he recovers from teargas. There was no let-up for Gamal and his followers. When the Ultras come out, he says, “We should be noticed for our power and strength. It’s others who want us to stop protesting, but what does that serve?”