Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ultras and fandom: In defence of the Green Brigade

Guest post by Michael Lavalette. Michael is a socialist councillor in Preston. He works at Liverpool Hope University, is the national co-ordinator of the Social Work Action Network and a season-ticket holder at Celtic

There is a confusion amongst many people when they hear about football Ultras. Many assume that ‘Ultras’ is a synonym for ‘hooligan’ – but this is simplistic tabloid dross: most ultras are not looking for trouble or violent clashes with fans from other teams.

Similarly, the assumption – especially amongst many on the left – is that the term Ultras is a short–hand to refer to football fans with connections to the far-right. But in the world of football fandom this is a complete misunderstanding of what the term means and the range of groups who self-define as Ultras.

In football fan terms Ultras is a label adopted by those who want to go beyond the ‘normal’ limits in their support of their team. It means fanatical support, a commitment to follow home and away, to bring banners, undertake Tifos (collective displays with banners, placards, flags), corteos (unofficial marches to games), perhaps use piro and to sing, dance and move in almost choreographed ways – whether winning, drawing or facing defeat.

It is certainly the case that some Ultras groups (across much of the Balkans and at some Italian clubs) do identify with the far-right. But there are also explicitly left-wing Ultras groups – notably the Commando Ultras 84 (at Olympic de Marseille), Brigate Autonome Livorno 99 (Livorno), Original 21 (AEK Athens), and those associated with Adana Demirspor in Turkey, Omonoia in Cyprus and Celtic’s Green Brigade.

Readers of this blog may be aware of the Green Brigade. They gained some national prominence from their magnificent Tifo at the start of the Celtic/Barcelona Champions League match in November 2012. The game coincided with the 125 anniversary of the club and the display covered every seat in the stadium (with the exception of the Barca fans). You can get a glimpse of the display (and the atmosphere that night!) here: 

Or look at some of the still images here. In the days following the game Celtic quickly brought out prints of the display which sold well (though the entire cost of the Tifo – running to several thousand pounds – was carried by the fans).

Yet over the course of this season the Green Brigade have been increasingly vociferous in their complaints about how they are being treated by the Club and, more importantly, by Strathclyde police.

Several members have been arrested at their home. Others have been picked up on the way to matches. Banners have been removed. Members have been served with match bans (often without prior knowledge) or travelling bans. In the ground, police officers with cameras swarm over them in their part of the ground: ‘section 111’.

On the weekend of 16 February as many of them came into the ground they were met with officers with lists of names of those they wanted to ‘monitor’. In response the Ultras refused to take their seats. In effect this was the third boycott against harassment the group have participated in this season.

Then on Saturday 16 March about 200 members and supporters of the group were kettled in Glasgow’s Gallowgate area. The police claimed this was because they were trying to organise an unauthorised assembly and march to the ground. [1]

At 1pm on a Saturday there are lots of Celtic fans walking the 30 minute route to the ground but the police claimed they responded to ‘reports of a large gathering’. I’m sure we will all sleep well at night knowing that the police took a mere 9 minutes (from a 1pm assembly to a 1.09 kettle) to muster several hundred officers, horses, dogs, helicopters and riot vans. The response was either very efficient or pre-planned. The policing was so extreme that one leading Scottish QC suggested the events were reminiscent of the actions of a ‘police state’. [2]

The harassment has reached such proportions that the group has put out a statement saying the existence of the Green Brigade is now being brought into question. To understand why the GB are coming under such pressure from the state we need to look at their history and activities.

Celtic Ultras.

The Green Brigade were formed over the summer of 2006. It was a reaction to the direction the corporate owners were taking the club. Like most top clubs in Britain Celtic bought into the attempt to rebrand top class football. All seater stadia; a more ‘family orientated’ atmosphere (though not ‘family friendly’ in terms of pricing!); pre-match and half-time entertainment; an emphasis on ‘corporate hospitality’: all with the intention of altering the ‘match day experience’. 

The result, at Celtic and most top clubs in Britain, was to kill the atmosphere. Stadia were often silent. Singing reduced to an occasional tune at matches with close rivals. It was these developments that led Roy Kean to talk about the prawn sandwich element at matches. As one of the Green Brigade’s founders put it:

We are ardent Celtic fans who eat, sleep and breathe the team. … As Celtic fans to the core, we are proud of the club’s colourful, vocal and often humerous past, but the atmosphere at games was quite simply flat. [3]
The Green Brigade formed out of a split from an earlier fan-grouping the Jungle Bhoys. There was some disagreement over the perceived ‘closeness’ of the Jungle Bhoys to the powers at the top of Celtic and the Green Brigade formed with a view to keeping a degree of distance from the club authorities. But the GB was also clear from the beginning that they were a political grouping: "a broad front of anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-sectarian Celtic supporters" [4]

The originators were clear about their aims:
What makes the Green Brigade different is our politics. We are anti-racist, anti-sectarian, anti-fascist and left-wing and proud of the fact and similar to comrades from St Pauli, Livorno and Athletic Bilbao etc believe that we should be allowed to show our support for political causes which have always gone hand-in-hand with being a Celtic supporter. [5]

And what has politics got to do with football? Well:

Politics is life. Politics has always been part of football and it’s disingenuous to claim otherwise. In the 1909 Scottish Cup Final Celtic and Rangers fans rioted together against the authorities for various reasons including the widespread belief that both clubs had engineered a replay which the fans could ill afford. You cannot suspend reality when you enter a football stadium. Some of the recent decisions of Celtic plc are in our opinion highly contentious and could be regarded as political. For example the shameful decision to tarnish Jimmy Johnstone’s memory by having adverts for right-wing paper The S*n plastered on commemorative posters. Sponsors such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Coors are highly controversial companies criticised by watchdogs for operating sweatshops, having links to anti-union Columbian death squads and being generally anti-trade union, etc. We feel these sponsorships are outwith the spirit of the Social Charter and all that Celtic stood for. Would Michael Davitt, Land Leaguer, the man who laid the centre spot be proud of what has become of this club? To be successful does not mean sacrificing all your principles on the altar of competitiveness. ... We encourage Celtic’s board and shareholders to take a serious look at a more ethical fair-trade sponsorship policy more in keeping with the club’s socially concerned traditions. [6]

Since their inception, the Green Brigade have tried to bring colour and song to home and away games through their chants and tifos. You can see a range of their Tifos at the group’s own Youtube summation of season 2011/2012 here. This includes (at 11mins 40 secs) the unfurling of the fantastic banner of the four-men of the apocalypse created to celebrate the demise of Rangers last year. The group explain:

Our banners are a big part of what we do. From general banter to sending a hard hitting message, each one is carefully planned and executed to gain maximum effect. [7]

The displays also define the group's stance on a particular issue, not least the group banner itself. The Green Brigade logo with its distinctive skull and scarf was hung upside down at matches between 2006 and 2011. This was because of the role of the ex-MP John Reid on the Celtic board. Reid’s support of the Iraqi war and defence of Britain’s imperial role drew the group’s ire:

We know people often question or poke fun at us for hanging our banner upside down but we are resolute on this point. The custom actually comes from shipping days and was used as a sign of distress but is now common in the ultras culture. We were only a small group when we first started hanging the banner upside down so it allowed us to engage in a unique way with other fans while getting our point across. [8]

The banner remained upside down until the match after Reid’s resignation. Perhaps the most ‘notorious’ of their banner demonstrations came in November 2010. On the nearest Saturday to Remembrance Sunday teams in the SPL were to wear a red poppy on their shirts. Complaining about the role of British troops in the murder of civilians from Ireland to Iraq the whole section was covered with a banner proclaiming: “Your deeds would shame all the devils in Hell. Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No Blood Stained Poppies on Our Hoops”

But banner protests are only one part of the group’s campaigning work.

The GB have regularly protested about the treatment of fans within the new Sky era. This has included banners protesting at ticket prices in Britain compared to continental Europe and changes to kick-off times. In April 2011 the group protested against ESPN’s demand that a mid-week Celtic-St Johnstone game kick off in Perth at 6pm. The 6pm kick-off meant people taking time off work to get to the match or missing out. It had a huge impact on the crowd numbers and people’s ability to watch their team. The response was the ‘Balls to 6pm Kick Offs’ protest. As the match got under way GB supporters launched footballs onto the pitch causing the game to be halted.

The GB are also part of the Alerta Network of anti-fascist fans groups. [9] As part of their anti-racist work they hold an annual ‘anti-discrimination’ football tournament which involves teams made up of local asylum seekers. The slogan of the event reflects Celtic’s own roots in the Irish migrant community: “Made by Immigrants, Refugees Welcome”.
At the end of the 2011/2012 season the GB displayed banners in support of Palestinian hunger strikers. This featured a banner reading "Dignity is More Precious than Food" alongside a flurry of Palestinian flags. A spokesman for the groups stated:
We did this in solidarity, to raise awareness and because it's the right thing to do. We want Palestinians to know we are thinking about them and encourage Scottish civil society to look at the injustice in Palestine. [10]

But what has undoubtedly provoked the ire of the Strathclyde police and the Scottish Government is the GB’s socialist-republicanism. Despite newspaper reports to the contrary, the GB rarely sing pro-IRA songs. Their songs are witty renditions of a range of traditional and modern songs from ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ (which the Club have tried to cash in on with T-shirts and mugs proclaiming the slogan) to ‘Zombie nation’ (sung about the ‘new’ Rangers). But in their repertoire are also a small number of songs commemorating the Irish Hunger Strikers (The Roll of Honour) and civilian victims of the British presence in the six counties (Aidan McAnespie [11]).

These songs have been used as an excuse to target the group under the new Scottish ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football’ legislation. This legislation was brought in after the so-called ‘shame game’ in season 2010-2011. A Scottish Cup clash between Celtic and Rangers ended up with a touch-line confrontation between Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon and two Rangers players being sent off.

The legislation was a panic reaction from the Scottish government and has led to the police targeting both Celtic and ‘new’ Rangers fans. But there is no doubt that it is the Green Brigade who the police have focussed on. In response several Celtic supporters groups have come together to form Fans Against Criminalisation. [12]

To the fury of many Celtic fans there seems to be no balance and no consistency. At Hampden Park earlier this year large sections of the crowd joined in songs celebrating the ‘Billy Boys’ (a celebration of a British Union of Fascist supporter in the 1930s) being ‘up to his knees in Fenian blood’ – yet there was little discussion in the media and no police action.

The Green Brigade have been targeted by the police because they represent a politically orientated approach to football fandom. They bring colour, singing and politics to football when the state, football authorities and the PLC want to sanitise football and take politics out of the game.
The campaign against the criminalisation of political football fans is one that we should all support – after all, if they get away with it at Celtic with the Green Brigade, who will be next?


[1] Angela Haggerty, “‘Disproportionate’ police presence and batons used on marchers at Glasgow’s Green Brigade football fan march.” 16 March 2013

[2] Gerry Braiden Top QC says response to Green Brigade march like a 'police state'” The Herald 18/3/2013
[3] TNT interview with the Green Brigade (2011) Part 1
[4] Roddy Forsyth: demented atmosphere in Scottish football led to SPL referees calling for strike action 25 Nov 2010
[5] Green Brigade Ultras
[6] Green Brigade Ultras
[7] The Green Brigade Part 2
[8] The Green Brigade Part 2
[10] Andrew McFadyenA Celtic Message to Palestine”  Al-Jezeera 13 Jun 2012
[11] Henry MacDonald, British government admits regret over McAnespie killing” The Guardian 27 July 2009

Thursday, March 21, 2013

They Thought It Was All Over

As England prepare for a World Cup Qualifier double-header Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman reviews the decline and fall of a Football Nation.
Never mind the debate over the dodgy third goal in ‘66, was it or wasn’t it  over the line. The most famous piece of commentary in English footballing history ‘some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over, it is now’  proves definitively England’s fourth goal against Germany should have been disallowed. A goal scored with a pitch invasion underway, absolutely against the rules of the game.
And thus England’s 47 years of hurt began. Up to 1966 we’d been World Cup quarter-finalists at best, and no European Cup had been lifted by an English club side either. Spurs had been the fist English team to win a European Trophy, the Cup-Winners Cup in 1963, followed by Bobby Moore captaining West Ham to winning the same trophy in 1965. 
Immediately after ‘66 English club sides did begin to dominate European competitions. In quick succession Leeds, Newcastle and Arsenal won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, while Manchester United lifted the European Cup in 1968 following north of the border Celtic’s success the previous year. Into the 1970s apart from the European Cup English cub sides continued to do well in the other two European competitions, Chelsea, Manchester CIty, LIverpool, Spurs all winning these tournaments, while any Leeds fan of a certain age will tell you that their club, not Bayern Munich were the ‘true’ winners of the 1975 European Cup with disallowed goals robbing them of victory.
It was the late 1970s to mid 1980s however when English domination of Europe really established itself. LIverpool winning the European Cup in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984. Nottingham Forest’s back-to-back wins in 1979 and 1980. Aston Villa in 1982. This was a remarkable run of success. But after the 1985-1990 ban of English club sides from European club competitions following the Heysel final involving LIverpool and Juventus which led to 39 deaths from a combination of rioting and poor stadium facilities, nothing like this kind of domination.
Since the English clubs were re-admitted just four Champions Leagues won in  21 years. Spanish clubs can boast 6 wins, Italian 5.  As for the UEFA Cup and the Europa League just one win since 1992, Liverpool’s in 2001.
This season’s failure of a single English club side to make it through to the Champions League quarter-finals has been widely commented on as the worst English performance since 1996. But actually the decline and fall of English club sides’ dominance of Europe goes considerably deeper than this. In ‘66 the fans and the clubs might well have thought it was ‘all over’, a golden period of club football about to begin. But despite all the Premier League-driven hype  it has never recovered anything like the heights of thirty years ago. The sweet irony of the centrepiece of the FA’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations being a Champions League FInal in the season of English cubs’ worst performance in the competition not to be missed.  
If the situation for English club sides in Europe doesn’t look too good, this is nothing compared to the England team.  After Euro 96 and reaching the semi-final, the bare minimum surely for a major football nation in a home tournament, no progress beyond the quarter-finals at a Euro or World Cup since. Never mind the nearly five decades of hurt, these past 17 years have e been bad enough. In European terms Croatia and Russia can claim to have done better, with a semi-final each since ‘96 and not at home either. Turkey has managed two semi-final appearances. The Czech Republic reached the final in ‘96 and the semi again in 2004. Apart from that little lot England can’t claim to come anywhere close to matching the records of Holland, Portugal, Italy, Germany, France and Spain in European Championship and World Cups since ‘96. And then there’s Greece who we squeezed past in 2001 to make sure of qualifying for the following years World Cup, and then they had the cheek to go and win Euro 2004, a feat that still remains beyond the reach of England. 
What might be the reasons for this spectacular failure? In their excellent book Why England Lose authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski offer a number of reasons, the principle one being that given the size of England’s population and number of professional footballers being regular quarter-finalists but not much better is the kind of position we should expect in world football. This sits uneasily with our martial and imperial history and the fact we like to think we invented the game but in reality its a theory not too far wide of the mark. It is the expectation that somehow 1966 wasn’t the blip it has proved to be and being a world power in football is our natural position in sporting life that distorts the magnitude of our failure . To that extent the 4-1 defeat to Germany at World Cup 2010 may prove a more important benchmark for the next 47 years than 1966 has proved to be for the past 47 years. It is unlikely ever again, certainly not in 2014 for anybody in their right mind, will England go to a major tournament expecting to win it. And so when we make it to the quarters and not much further we can be pleased with ourselves rather than agonising over the latest in the game of what-might-have-beens but weren’t.
I would add some other factors too. Firstly the psychological.  In an England tournament squad the players know the expectations are unreasonably high. At club level they are mostly idolised, many have win a cabinet full of winners medals already, and they play their international football every seasin in the Champions League. Yet with England unless they defy history and get past the quarters they are losers at best, vilified at worst. They can’t win.  Secondly, our style of play. And as fans we’re culpable in this too. The English love a fast-moving physical game, ‘get stuck in’ with loads of commitment. Good enough to get England to the quarter-finals, but not many tournaments are won playing like this. Thirdly the narrow base of team recruitment. Despite all the changes in our society  professional footballers still come overwhelmingly from a narrow, and numerically declining, social base. And entire communities are entirely under-represented, Asian, Chinese, East European and other sizeable immigrant communities hardly feature in the professional game. No this isn’t the much touted ‘political correctness gone mad’ its ensuring we draw on all the talents that might be available. England doesn’t.  Fourthly we fail to learn from others. Yes there are foreign players, managers and coaches in English football. But the changes they bring with them still hardly impact on club football, and on the national team scarcely at all  Its all a bit foreign, and what do we have to learn from the Germans, the Spanish, the Italians anyway?  This inward-looking cocksureness affects how Football largely insulates it from other far more successful sports too, how many of those who’ve excelled in establishing regimes that produce winners in other sports are headhunted to contribute something to football?  Finally, our lack of experience of tournament football. Age-group competitions at a European and World Cup level are consistently undervalued with the best players often not even sent there to represent England. And apart from the 2012 exception no England team competes in  the Olympic football tournament, for many young players an essential experience towards a future World Cup. One simple solution introduce what would be a hugely popular and highly competitive football tournament in the Commonwealth Games.
Five ideas, there will be plenty more, just the kind of thing the FA should be debating as part of its 150th anniversary . Instead, England appear to be quaking in their boots at the prospect of the must-win game against Montenegro next Tuesday. This is a country with a population roughly comparable to the numbers living in the London Borough of Hammersmith. OK we seem to be as safe as houses facing San Marino in the first of the World Cup double headers but plucky Montenegro have us worried. Looking back at our accumulated decline and fall, club and country, since 1966 with good reason.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Ultras and the Egyptian Revolution – An Interview with Ali Mustafa

This interview with Ali Mustafa was originally published on Left Hook - a massive thank you to them for allowing it to be re-posted here.

Last month marked the one year anniversary of the massacre at Port Said in Egypt.  Though much was made in the North American media of the so-called “Arab Spring,” attention quickly turned away as the politics became demonstrably more complicated than a simple narrative of liberal, democratic demonstrations (using twitter and facebook, we are always reminded) against military dictatorships.  Ali Mustafa is a Toronto-based journalist who has spent much time in Egypt covering the ongoing and complicated Egyptian Revolution, and here he answers some questions about the role of football fans – the “Ultras” – in the movement in Egypt

Left Hook: The Arab Spring is read by most people in the West as a pro-democracy movement that used social media to organize protests to oust a military dictator. Hosni Mubarak was removed from power more than two years ago. Can you give a bit of background on the political situation in Egypt right now? How much has really changed?
Ali Mustafa: Firstly, Egypt’s revolution is part of a long and ongoing process that is far from complete. More than two years after former dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled, ordinary Egyptians are still taking to the street en masse to fight for bread, freedom, and social justice. Nothing has changed at all in that regard. In fact, mass protests, labour actions, and ongoing clashes with state security forces in opposition to the ruling regime have only intensified in recent months.
Despite the transition to liberal democracy finally completed last year, many of the underlying structural flaws that have plagued Egypt for decades are not only still in place but arguably worse than they were before: vast inequality, widespread corruption, grave human rights abuses – all of the problems that originally led Egyptians to rise up against Mubarak in the first place. Since taking office as the first ever democratically elected president in the country’s history, Mohamed Morsi has largely failed to capitalize on the historic opportunity before him. His top priority has clearly been to consolidate his own grip on power. As a result, his presidency has signaled far more continuity than actual change.
Yet it is a mistake to treat any new democracy as some sort of a blank slate, ignoring just how much of the dynamics at play are inherited rather than decided. In Egypt, the so called ‘deep state’ – a longstanding legacy of deeply entrenched elite interests, including but not limited to those of the military – remains firmly intact. As a result, the transition from dictatorship to democracy is by no means an easy one. Elections alone do not signify a major break with the prevailing political and economic order. Without any meaningful level of structural reform, they only serve to further consolidate the status quo.
Egyptians, however, refuse to let up pressure. They have made it very clear that they are no longer willing to accept politics as usual, merely having one autocrat replaced by another. Too much has been sacrificed over the past two years to simply turn back now.
That being said, many serious challenges still lie ahead. The inspiring sense of unity found in Tahrir Square during the original 18 day uprising that finally toppled Mubarak actually concealead far more than it revealed. Egypt is more polarized now than ever before. The result has been one major political crisis after another with virtually no end in sight. How exactly everything will play out is still difficult to say at this point, but the fault lines are clear.
LH: On February 1, 2012, over 70 people were killed in the ‘Port Said massacre’ at a football match. Many people have argued that this attack was orchestrated from the top as a reprisal against the ‘Ultras.’ What happened in Port Said and who are the Ultras?
AM: Ultras are a group of avid, typically young football fans united by a very strong sense of loyalty to their club. Generally, each team will have its own dedicated following of Ultras supporters. Aside from style of clothing, like a hoodie or scarf bearing their team’s colours, Ultras are otherwise distinguishable from ordinary fans by the animated displays of support they bring to football matches in the form of chants, flare shows, and other theatrics. These activities are meant to inspire a unique sense of belonging among the participants involved, awe spectators, as well as intimidate supporters of the opposing side.
What many people may not know about the Ultras is just how sophisticated they are organizationally. They have a centralized leadership structure, smaller subgroups divided by region, and regular meetings attended by local representatives where key decisions concerning the group’s activities are made. The reason so little is known about them is because of their somewhat secretive nature and reluctance to talk to media.
The Ultras phenomenon originally has its roots in Europe, and really only made its way to Egypt and other parts of the Middle East in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, the impact has been unmistakable. The youthful spirit and energy they bring with them to the matches, much like we find elsewhere, including Europe, naturally creates a highly charged atmosphere inside the stadium. As a result, tension tends to run very high during most matches, occasionally leading to minor skirmishes or sometimes even larger outbreaks of violence between rival Ultras. They certainly have no problem taking on the police as well.
Actually, despite some notable variations from one region to another, one of the basic, underlying themes of the Ultras culture globally is a deeply held contempt for the police and authority more generally. This type of intense hatred can be best summed up by the motto made popular by the Ultras, which you will find, for example, spray painted on walls all over downtown Cairo: All Cops Are Bastards (or ACAB). This kind of longstanding feud that exists between Ultras and the police in Egypt has only grown worse in recent years.
During the start of the Egyptian revolution on January 25 2011, Ultras were at the forefront of the clashes against the police in Tahrir Square, especially during the now infamous Battle of the Camel. Since then, the Ultras have played a major, indispensable role in the ongoing struggle against the regime and become renowned among Egyptians for their bravery and fighting skills. Basically, they have brought their years of experience in fighting against police from the stadium to the streets.
All of this provides really important context for understanding what happened a year later in Port Said, which, as you say, saw over 70 people brutally killed and 1,000 more injured in a stadium riot after a match between Al Ahly and Al Masry on February 1, 2012. The incident is recognized as the deadliest sporting disaster in Egypt’s history. After the match, fans from the hometown Masry side stormed the pitch and began attacking visiting Ahly supporters in the stands with clubs, knives, and other types of weapons. Most of the individuals killed, however, actually suffocated to death after being trampled in the ensuing chaos – it was later revealed that the gates of the stadium had in fact been welded shut, leading to a deadly stampede at the exit that could have otherwise been avoided.
Several important questions immediately come to mind, which until now have not really been sufficiently answered. First of all, why were the gates of the stadium welded shut, making any sort of safe exit virtually impossible? Why were so many people not searched by security before being allowed to enter the stadium as per standard protocol? Why did the police do nothing to intervene and instead just stand idly by watching the massacre unfold?
The whole incident just begs too many questions to be dismissed away as a random act of football ‘hooliganism’. Suspicion immediately turned towards the Ministry of Interior and even higher up the chain of command to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the ruling military junta at the time, who the Ultras accused of orchestrating the attack as an act of revenge against them for their role in the uprising. Whether or not the authorities actively colluded in the attack and to what degree is still unclear, but I think it is safe to say, based on the evidence, they were at the very least willfully negligent.
Last month on January 26 2013, 21 individuals – all of them residents of Port Said – were sentenced by a judge to death for their role in the massacre. Interestingly, no police or government officials at any level were convicted. The city of Port Said immediately erupted into violence over what many locals claim was a politically charged verdict. The argument is not entirely without merit. Ultras Ahlawy, who are supporters of Ahly, the country’s biggest club in Cairo, had for weeks been threatening retribution if a swift guilty verdict was not handed down.
I think it is certainly possible that the ruling was made as an attempt to appease Ultras Ahlawy. Of course, no one was counting on Port Said erupting the way it did. Some 30 more people were killed in the ensuing clashes with police over the verdict. Actually, the fallout is still being felt until today. Whoever claims that there is no relation between sports and politics clearly understands neither.
LH: It may come as a surprise to North American observers that sports fans could be such central political actors, especially in a progressive cause, given that North American sporting culture has become so apolitical or, worse, so deeply conservative. Can you talk a bit about the way that sporting culture is more complicated in Egypt, and how football fans/clubs can come to represent important and progressive political ideals?
AM: The Ultras phenomenon in Egypt, like elsewhere, cannot be isolated from its broader social, political, and economic context. In the case of Egypt, these are largely marginalized urban youth who until the revolution really had no outlet to channel their frustration except through sports. The specific internal dynamics at play are necessary to look at.
Importantly, Ultras groups in Egypt have not developed the same type of neo-fascist political ideology we find steadily taking root among their Western European counterparts. I think the reason is largely because Egypt has historically been far less polarized than, for example, Greece, the UK, or many of the Eastern bloc countries where this specific brand of far right-wing hooliganism has become particularly prominent over time. There are many other factors.
That being said, I do not want to overstate or romanticize at all the progressive political ideals, as you say, of Egypt’s Ultras. For many years, they were in fact quite explicitly apolitical and shied away totally from the arena of politics. Even today to a large degree, Ultras will insist that their role in the revolution is not so much political per se, but rather part of a longstanding and bitter rivalry with the Ministry of Interior, police, and other state security forces.
What is clear, however, whether it is acknowledged or not, is the degree to which the revolution has actually played a part in politicizing the Ultras in the first place – and that is true for large sectors of the society in general. Although the Ultras in Egypt have for a long time avoided politics, a basic notion of freedom, justice, and dignity has always been at the core of its values. These sort of core values, together with an already pronounced anti-police sentiment, I think helped provide a firm basis for the Ultras’ overall development politically.
By the time the revolution started, Ultras members were already participating as individuals, although not yet formally as a group. They were for the most part not acting on any sort of deeply held political convictions but more so a growing sense of indignation towards their hated enemy, the police, and increasingly the government itself. Although the sense of anger, outrage, and injustice they felt still lacked any clear political coherence, it was not very difficult for them to make a connection with the goals of the revolution at a basic emotional level.
Martyrdom, memory, and memorialization are also all very central aspects of the Ultras spirit. They have a very strict ‘eye for an eye’ mentality. When Ultras members started dying in the clashes, their relationship to the revolution changed – it became intensely personal. As a result, the focus for them immediately turned to avenging their martyrs at any cost. In fact, one of the main criticisms against the Ultras is that they care far more about their club and fellow members than anything else. I think it is difficult to dispute that claim.
Yet there is no doubt that the Ultras have played an incredibly important role in the ongoing revolution to date. Like I said, they have taken a lead role in most of the clashes against the regime over the past two years, not to mention the many times they have helped defend Tahrir Square from attacks by thugs loyal to the government. Exactly how effective the clashes have been to the overall goals of the revolution is still very much in dispute, but in reality nothing else has done more to raise the price of dictatorship, make the status quo untenable, and generally disrupt politics as usual.
What is interesting, however, is the way the Ultras as a movement has evolved over time – not only politically but tactically as well. In the early stages of the revolution, we only really saw them engage in street fighting with police – which they still do – but they now also employ a wide variety of other strategies to achieve their demands, including mass sit-ins, road blocks, and other forms of direct action. In the lead up to the Port Said verdict a few weeks ago, for example, Ultras Ahlawy staged a sit in at one of the largest metro stations in Cairo to demand justice for their martyrs. They held up traffic for several hours, making it very clear the scale of disruption they could cause in the country if the verdict did not go their way.
Another important development linked directly to the revolution is the decision by Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knights, supporters of the two biggest clubs in Egypt, and former heated rivals, to put aside their differences and join forces in the fight against the regime. The move is very significant, especially considering the historic rivalry between the two teams. For me, it definitely demonstrates just how much the Ultras have matured as political actors since the start of the revolution.
LH: Can you talk a little bit about the way that gender plays out in the context of the Ultras and its role in the movement? 
AH: Yes, that is a very important question. There is definitely a clear macho mentality that permeates the Ultras culture, whether in Egypt or elsewhere. The same can also be said of sports in general. Yet I think the glaring gender divide found in Egypt’s Ultras movement is really just a symptom of a much larger systemic problem. The Ultras culture of hyper masculinity cannot really be addressed until it has been confronted in Egyptian society as a whole.
In Egypt, not only is any kind of open interaction between the sexes still sort of taboo but there is also an entirely different set of social expectations imposed on women that simply do not apply to men. As a result, women in Egypt are often castigated for failing to conform to their prescribed role in society. The problem existed long before the Ultras, but I think, whether intentionally or not, they have done a lot more to reinforce these problematic gender norms than actually confront them.
For example, during the sit in that Ultras Ahlawy staged outside the parliament building a month after the Port Said massacre – their first major direct action – the group’s leadership tried to impose several ground rules directed explicitly at women. Firstly, they put a curfew into effect prohibiting women from being at the sit in after 10 pm. Even more shockingly, women were also banned from smoking cigarettes at the site. Although in the end the rules were only loosely enforced, I think it goes a long way to highlight the many barriers women still face to be treated as equal players in this revolution.
That being said, I think the revolution itself has done a lot to put a spotlight on the problem. Since the start of the revolution, women have been increasingly targeted for participating in marches, protests, or other related activities – sexual assaults in Tahrir Square have increased dramatically in the past few months alone. Yet rather than back down or retreat from the public sphere, women have in fact only increased their presence on the streets. The fight for women’s rights, being led by women themselves, is now a key battleground in a way it had not really been a year or two ago.
LH: The obsessive reification of technology and social media in North American culture has created a perception that the Arab Spring was driven by Facebook and Twitter. This seems rather superficial to me. These technologies may have influenced the shape and the specific manifestations of demonstrations, but it seems to me that social movements have to be rooted in real human, social relationships between people. Do you think sport can be a space where those kinds of connections can be formed and fostered? Does the Egyptian context suggest something that we can build on, with respect to our own movement building, and its relationship to sports?
AM: To be honest, I am not so sure that the Ultras offer the best model for anyone to replicate. Sports by itself is simply not a useful basis for effective social movement building, in my opinion. Like sports, there is also a very clear, deliberate divide between participants and spectators in the Ultras movement that should not go overlooked. While the type of mass mobilization, camaraderie, and energy for which the Ultras have become renowned all make for a very awe-inspiring spectacle, it is not one that is really open to outsiders who do not embody the same type of youthful enthusiasm for football that they do.
Yet the factors that help explain why the Ultras have become such a powerful and influential force on the ground transcend far beyond the realm of sports alone. There is nothing inevitable about their transformation into political actors. As a result, the Ultras cannot really be understood outside the context of the revolutionary process from which they emerged.
That being said, I think there are definitely some general lessons to be gleaned. The test for any social movement lies primarily in its ability to build and strengthen unity. Social movements are more likely to find success where there is also a strong sense of shared identity among members. The bond may find expression in a variety of ways, like sports, for example, but it must be based first and foremost on real root grievances to have any kind of potential politically.
Aside from unity of cause, most successful social movements also typically feature some sort of ritualistic component through which the bond shared between individual members is not only forged but sustained over time – it is in here where the role of collective memory that I alluded to earlier becomes particularly important. Some examples that immediately come to mind include the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and even, to a large degree, the Idle No More movement here in Canada. Although these social movements could not possibly be any more different from one another, they all share a certain kind of spirituality that gets expressed, nurtured, and reinforced through the act of specific rituals. The Ultras are certainly no exception in that regard.
When thinking about building an effective social movement, the key questions for me are is it inclusive? Is it participatory? Is it democratic in character? Those are the questions that I find important. Whether a social movement emerges from sports or somewhere else is a secondary matter.
Ali Mustafa is a freelance writer, photographer, and multimedia journalist. His work can be found at: Follow him on Twitter at: @_fbtm