It was mid-afternoon on Saturday, the second day of mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to military rule, when a cry went out for help from the ultras, Egypt’s militant, violence-prone, highly politicized football fans. Under attack by security forces, protesters, unwilling to back down, were looking at what amounts to the Egyptian revolt’s shock troops for protection.
“We initially stayed away when the families of the people killed during the uprising went back out to Tahrir. The police violence changed our minds. We experienced it first-hand before. We have zero tolerance for it,” said Abu Ala, a member of Ultras Ahlawy, fans of one of two of Cairo’s biggest clubs, Al Ahly SC.
Abu Ala and members of his arch enemy, Ultras White Knights (UWK), supporters of Al Ahly’s historic rival, Al Zamalek SC, reached Tahrir by late afternoon. It was the second time in the more than a century-old history of the two clubs that their supporters joined forces rather than faced off in violent street brawls to face a common enemy: first the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak whom they helped topple early this year and this week to push for an end to military rule.
“The Central Security Forces had run the protesters out of Tahrir Square,” recalls Hassan Sharif, a protester who has been in Tahrir since the protests erupted a week ago. “Security forces had occupied the roundabout. The Ultras White Knights charged from the museum, yelling the chant about how they’ll f*ck the CSF up.”
Within an hour, the security forces had pulled back, only to return on Sunday backed by military police who briefly retook the Square. The battle has been raging since.
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Led by ultras – angry young men with no political affiliations and warrior-like zeal – armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails, they have been battling security forces for almost a week now in the streets around Tahrir as they fight amid the wail of ambulances and the roar of armored vehicles, so far unsuccessfully, to make their way to the Interior Ministry, home to the hated security forces. “A red line has been crossed, there is no turning back. It doesn’t matter what price we pay in lives. We are not giving in,” vowed one ultra while speaking on a mobile phone, the sound of a street battle punctuating his words.
Unlike other groups in Tahrir, the ultras are respected and celebrated by the protesters and feared by the security forces. Modeled on groups in Italy and Serbia, the ultras – self-defined anarchists whose militant support for their clubs is expressed with chanting, jumping up and down, fireworks, flares and smoke guns – the ultras were early this year (and now again) the only group in Tahrir with years of street-battle experience garnered in weekly battles in the stadiums with security forces and the supporters of their rivals.
Their fearlessness, willingness to put their lives on the line and battle tactics gave protesters a sense of power and the courage to stand their man alongside the ultras.
Beyond the more than 30 people already killed in the last week and the more than 1,500 wounded, football may be another victim of the battle for Egypt’s future. Like in January when Egypt’s premier league was suspended for three months to prevent the pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) is considering cancelling the kick-off of next month’s season. “What is happening now in Egypt is spoiling our football,” said EFA President Samir Zaher, a Mubarak-era appointee whose resignation the ultras have been demanding for months.
That is a price the ultras were willing to pay early this year and are happy to pay again. “The blood of the martyrs won’t be for free,” chanted Nader el-Sayed, a former Egypt goalkeeper, the only player to have joined protesters early this year. He is now back in Tahrir Square.