Saturday, May 26, 2018

Egypt's angry soccer fans are deep into politics

CAIRO — Egypt's ruling generals have a new enemy: the legions of angry soccer fans who have injected fervor into recent protests demanding the military step down and battled police for days in the streets of Cairo.

Known as Ultras and long viewed as hooligans, they have grown increasingly political, starting with last year's uprising, and were pushed over the edge by the deadly riots at a soccer match last week.

It's a sign of how the military's rocky handling of the transition is driving more and more Egyptians into activism at a time when many are frustrated with the generals who took over from Hosni Mubarak a year ago, and by growing economic and security woes.

Ultra members have been credited with playing a major role in the 18-day popular uprising that toppled longtime dictator Mubarak, as well as recent street clashes with police. They were the chief defenders of Tahrir Square, the uprising's epicenter, when Mubarak loyalists on camel and horseback charged protesters on Feb. 2 one of the deadliest days of the uprising.

The deaths of 74 people in those soccer riots — mostly Ultras who supported the Cairo-based Al-Ahly club — has unleashed such fury in the movement's ranks that many expect the Ultras to turn out in even greater numbers in future street protests, whether against military rule or to press demands for more sweeping reforms.

"Their participation in protests will significantly increase," predicted Mohammed Gamal Bashir, author of an Arabic-language book on the Ultras published in December.

"Authorities have made an enemy of them and that is a very big mistake. They have passion, no expectations and don't want to be labeled politically. In short, they enter the struggle but don't care about the likely fruits of their role."

The Ultras' history of enmity with the regime made them a perfect fit in the ranks of the pro-democracy protesters who engineered Mubarak's ouster.

For four years before Mubarak's fall, Ultras clashed almost weekly with security forces in Egyptian stadiums and were subjected to random arrests, detention and intimidation. Their rank-and-file swelled with thousands of disaffected, unemployed and often uneducated youth who despised the police and a regime that offered them little hope for the future.

Since the deadly riots, the Ultras have been lionized by the independent press and rights activists as true and brave patriots who share the ideals of the revolutionaries behind Mubarak's ouster.

The lavish praise, however, has concealed the movement's origins as essentially rabid soccer fans often willing to engage in violent clashes with supporters of rival clubs, as well as security forces.

The Feb. 1 riot, the worst soccer-related incident in Egyptian history, took place in the city of Port Said on the Mediterranean, where Al-Ahly, Egypt's most popular team, played the home team Al-Masry. Al-Masry won 3-1.

The deaths of so many Al-Ahly supporters, mostly young men in their teens and 20s, has dominated Egypt's political agenda over the past week, making front-page headlines and fueling countless conspiracy theories.

Some claim the security forces stood by to punish the Al-Ahly Ultras for their high-profile involvement in last year's Tahrir Square protests and subsequent anti-government demonstrations.

Many activists and commentators have blamed the incident on police negligence and military inaction, despite signs of trouble ahead of the match, which pitted two sides with a long history of animosity and fan violence. It also sparked days of clashes between police and protesters in Cairo and elsewhere in the country. A total of 15 people, mostly in Cairo, were killed.

Stoking the Ultras' fury, the nation's military leader, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, dismissed the tragedy in comments to the media as an "incident that can happen anywhere in the world." A much larger segment of the population was infuriated when he said he was vexed by people's inability to put a stop to such incidents, a comment interpreted as a call for Egyptians to take the law into their own hands.

The Ultras are the latest large segment of Egyptians to turn against the nation's ruling generals.

In October, 27 people, mostly Christians, were killed by troops during a protest outside the Nile-side state television headquarters. Video clips posted on social networks showed army vehicles running over the protesters. In December, army troops were captured on camera beating and stomping on female protesters, including one that was stripped half-naked.

The two incidents caused an uproar and led to charges that the generals were no better than Mubarak. The fury added to the growing resentment of the generals for the torture of detainees and the hauling of at least 12,000 civilians, many of them protesters, before military tribunals for trial since Mubarak's ouster.

In large part, Egypt's Ultras mirror similar movements in southern Europe, particularly Italy. They first surfaced in 2007, but only burst on the local scene as a distinctive group after Mubarak's fall. Since then, they have made their presence felt in matches with fireworks, incessant chanting and songs taunting the military leadership and police.

"Hey government, tomorrow you will be cleansed by the people's hands. Hey stupid regime, when will you understand that what I demand is freedom, freedom, freedom?" goes one Ultra chant.

They have drawn hundreds of thousands of members from across Egypt, capitalizing on the nation's obsession with soccer.

Their hatred for the police is both deep and uncompromising.

"We have members who come from areas so poor, so densely populated it is difficult to breathe there, let alone walk or exercise," Ahmed Adel, a leader of the Ultras-White Knights, which supports the Cairo club Zamalek, Al-Ahly's cross-city archrival.

"We can cope with poverty, but we cannot tolerate oppression. We know what social justice is and we want it."

Comments

Rays jump on Orioles early, coast to 5-1 win

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays cruised to a 5-1 victory over the Orioles on Saturday at Tropicana Field.In his first career start, Ryne Stanek pitched 1⅔ scoreless innings for Tampa Bay, retiring all five batters he faced. His fastball sitting...
Updated: 11 minutes ago
Her husband wouldn’t apologize to her father — so she shot him, police say

Her husband wouldn’t apologize to her father — so she shot him, police say

RIVERVIEW — A Riverview woman shot and killed her husband Saturday because he punched her father and wouldn’t say sorry, the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office said.Sabrina Michelle Hendley, 40, faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of Mark A. H...
Updated: 19 minutes ago

PLANT CITY — A Seffner woman died Saturday from injuries sustained when her sports utility vehicle flipped off the road and crashed into a fence near the intersection of Tanner Road and State Road 574.Amanda K. Cepeda-Duque, 21, was traveling west on...
Updated: 1 hour ago
RAYSREPORT

RAYSREPORT

Today: vs. Orioles1:10, Tropicana FieldTV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 620-AM, 680-AM (Spanish)Tickets: $15-$275; available at Tropicana Field, raysbaseball.com, surcharge of up to $5 within five hours of gamePromotion: Raymond children’s book for kids 14 ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Live Coverage: Tropical storm warning issued for parts of Tampa Bay as Alberto treks north

Live Coverage: Tropical storm warning issued for parts of Tampa Bay as Alberto treks north

Here’s the latest. As of 5 p.m. Saturday, a Tropical Storm Warning has been issued for the west coast of the Florida peninsula from Bonita Beach to the Anclote River.County emergency officials continue to monitor flood-prone areas, but so far n...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Salah's World Cup in doubt as Egyptians turn on Ramos

Salah's World Cup in doubt as Egyptians turn on Ramos

Liverpool star forward Mohamed Salah was in tears as he left the Champions League final against Real Madrid after 30 minutes
Updated: 1 hour ago

Updated: 1 hour ago
An American Airlines passenger was refused beer - so he screamed, fought and spit blood, FBI says

An American Airlines passenger was refused beer - so he screamed, fought and spit blood, FBI says

It began, as so many plane debacles seem to, with strange sounds in the bathroom.They were the noises of Jason Felix, one of the passengers on Wednesday’s American Airlines flight out of Saint Croix, according to a FBI affidavit recounting events lea...
Updated: 1 hour ago
US states prepare as Subtropical Storm Alberto heads north

US states prepare as Subtropical Storm Alberto heads north

A storm moving slowly through the Gulf of Mexico is threatening to bring heavy rainfall, storm surges, high winds, and flash floods to the U.S. Gulf Coast this holiday weekend
Updated: 1 hour ago
The Latest: Irish PM plans to move quickly on legal abortion

The Latest: Irish PM plans to move quickly on legal abortion

The prime minister of Ireland says the repeal of a constitutional abortion ban is a historic day for his country and a great act of democracy
Updated: 1 hour ago