‘Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.’ Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Following the violence in Port Said, President Mohammed Morsi declared a state of emergency and imposed a 9 pm curfew in the three cities of the Suez Canal (Port Said, Suez and Ismailia). Nevertheless clashes around the Port Said prison ended with more than 40 killed and 300 injured. Among the dead, two football players: Tamer al-Fahla, former al-Masry goalkeeper, and Mohammad al-Dadhwi of the al-Mareekh club. Whilst the demonstrators attempted to free some prisoners, a few days before six of the 21 condemned to death escaped from jail.
The reaction to the verdict differed among the al-Ahly supporters who celebrated it outside their Cairo fan club in the central district of Zamalek. ‘Finally, justice has been done for my son’, said the mother of Islam Mohamed, one of the supporters killed in the Port Said massacre last year. However, some of the Ultras contested the absence of policemen among the people sentenced gathering around the Interior Ministry in Cairo Sheykh Rihan’s street.
In this tense atmosphere, activists issued calls for a campaign of ‘civil disobedience’ in Port Said to demand a ‘retribution’ for slain protesters. Therefore, the unrest became the occasion to request the dismissal of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Then a number of Port Said residents went to the city’s local Real Estate Registration (RER) office, the government’s legal certifying authority, where they attempted to ‘legalise’ requests to withdraw confidence from the President. As a result, the head of the local RER temporarily closed the office, saying the practice was unconstitutional. New and violent demonstrations broke out again a week before the final verdict because the 39 defendants were transferred to the Zagazig’s prison. Hundreds of people were injured and seven more were killed, while the Muslim Brothers offices and the local governorates were burned. During the funeral of those killed, thousands of people blamed both the Interior Ministry and the President.
The final verdict, issued on Saturday 9 March, left both sides unhappy. The court upheld 21 death sentences. Port Said stadium security chief, Essam Eddin Samak, and nine other defendants were each sentenced to 15 years in jail. Among the 28 acquitted there were seven police officers and two officials from Port Said’s Al-Masry club. New riots broke out in the canal city, Egyptian army tanks surrounded the Security Directorate after police withdrew from the town. In the meanwhile, popular committees were formed in local areas. Clash also broke out in Cairo. Fans of the Al-Ahly club stormed the Egyptian Football Federation headquarters, setting it ablaze because of the police officers’ acquittal.
The Port Said massacre more than a year later
The Port Said massacre has been one of the most controversial events on the use of violence in the aftermath of the Egyptian upheaval, not only for the huge number of people who lost their lives during the football match, but for many other reasons. The Ultras have played an undeniably significant role in the protests, as attested by revolutionaries, especially, the Al-Ahly’s supporters, one of the oldest Egyptian football team with one of the biggest fan clubs in the country. For these reasons, many independent activists supported the hypothesis of a generic political retaliation, perpetrated by the army, against the Al-Ahly supporters. Protesters charged policemen, as they did not intervene to stop the massacre in Port Said stadium where the Al-Ahly Ultras were killed.
Politicians and observers question the role of the Ultras’ role in the Revolution to explain the confrontations between the fans and the police. In other words, they accused the police of masterminding the massacre as a retaliation for Al-Ahly fans, which is the interpretation adopted by the demonstrators, as shown in the rallying chants of outrage towards the police. Interior Ministry denied the collusion charges and declared in a statement that ‘there was a semi-deliberate hostile escalation by some fans and it seemed clear that there is a deliberate determination by troublemakers with unjustified intents to cause riots and chaos’.
However, many witnesses argued that there had been a lack of intervention on the part of local police to prevent the events leaving 74 people dead after the match between al-Masry and al-Ahly. Moreover, this episode broke out in a strategic place. The Port Said stadium is not far from the Suez Canal, a town where the biggest barracks, army headquarters and trainee camps are located. ‘When the match was about to finish and al-Masry club was winning 3 to 1, policemen and soldiers did not intervene in order to stop the carnage’. This is the way in which an al-Ahly fan (who wishes his identity to remain anonymous), described the massacre. ‘When the first clashes broke out and after the invasion of the field by fans, all the lights of the stadium were switched off and the entrance doors were closed’, added the young man who traveled from downtown Cairo to the Sinai by a bus organized for fans that day.
It is true that many Ultras took part in the major demonstrations since the beginning of the upheaval. ‘They have been the major defender of Tahrir Square when men loyal to Mubarak attacked demonstrators’, explained Hendawy, a journalist of Masry al-Youm. Many independent activists described the massacre of Port Said as a political vendetta, perpetrated by the soldiers, using policemen and al-Masry supporters as mere executors, against the al-Ahly Ultras for their role during the upheavals. However, the judges who chaired the trial partially deny this interpretation. For this reason, the harsh verdict of the death penalty for the 21 fans has been interpreted, by many independent analysts, as a mere attempt to calm down the Cairo based al-Ahly supporters without a real investigation on the perpetrators of the massacre.
The ultras and alternative networks
Since 1 February 2012, when the violence first took place in Port Said, the Egyptian Premier League was suspended for a year. The authorities later intended to start a closed doors championship. The League resumed one month ago but, with the latest events, many observers ask for a new suspension. In Egypt, football is a pervasive social and mass event. However, the gatherings of the major fan clubs are a recent phenomenon. On the one hand, the Egyptian Al-Ahly Ultras are young and working class men, ready to fight against other fans club, policemen and soldiers. During the 2011 upheaval, they were helped by social media in order to be more effective and organized. On the other hand, in Port Said the pro-Nasser, anti-colonial sentiments and the workers unions are very strong. During the 1952 revolution, the Port Said club denied the Al-Ahly supporters entrance to the stadium. Henceforth, the two clubs are real football rivals.
This rivalry has been used by the security forces as a means of political retaliation in order to alter and stigmatize those alternative networks that did not find any representation within the public institutions. During the 2011 unrest, in Tahrir Square there were several actors: many young activists, included football Ultras, expressing their creativity through new ways of artistic resistance, Muslim and Christian women, migrants, the poor, coming from deprived areas of urban Cairo and workers. These movements were action oriented, though leaderless participants, using non violent methods, including sit-ins, permanent occupations of squares and sidewalks, marches, popular committees and much more.
The intervention of the army and its intertwined relationship with paramilitary groups spread a threat of fear in order to discredit and alter those street movements. This happened especially in local urban areas and town, like Port Said, where the military personnel could use its proxies to trigger threats and retaliations. The military junta using different methods has implemented those strategies: nationalist rhetoric, criminals, the closure of streets surrounding public institutions and sectarian clashes. The SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood monopolized and manipulated those alternative networks, leaving them in a marginal place similar to where they were prior to the uprisings. Henceforth, on the one hand, the state television representation of the demonstrators, especially the Ultras, on the other hand, the electoral procedures reshaped those alternative groups of protesters. The control of the state on society has been reproduced allowing a constant but irrelevant dissent.
Al-Ahly Ultras are essential protagonists of the 2011 Egyptian unrest. However, the way in which alternative networks are deactivated is a clear demonstration of how the distinction between state and society is used in the Middle East to produce and reproduce the power of the former. More specifically, this practice has been brought about by the exploitation of political dissent and the spread of political control on society. This is confirmed by the current protests against the Port Said’ verdict. Eventually, allowing the end of the trial with a biased and incomplete verdict, the state fails again to find a new source of legitimacy.
Photo by lilianwagdy: Egypt, Ultras Ahly and Zamalek flags in front of a CSF vehicle