The deaths of up to 40 of Egypt’s highly politicized and street battle-hardened cadre of soccer fans after they were boxed into a narrow space by security forces on Sunday suggests that Egypt’s government has no intention of easing its crackdown on political dissent.
The incident, the worst in Egyptian sporting history after the death of 74 fans in a politically loaded brawl three years ago in Port Said, nonetheless raises the stakes for the government because it involves groups that project themselves as nonpolitical but have for years demonstrated a willingness to clash with security forces, primarily in and around soccer stadiums.
Sunday’s incident may also deal a lethal blow to the authorities’ efforts to normalize the situation on the streets and weaken the influence of the ultras — hard-core fans with the greatest willingness to fight. The government only this month began lifting a ban on spectators at soccer matches in force since the Port Said brawl. Although the Premier League program was canceled after that incident, it resumed a year later but with spectators barred from attending. Now the league program has once again been indefinitely suspended.
The government immediately blamed the Ultras White Knights (UWK), hard-core supporters of storied Cairo club Al-Zamalek SC, suggesting that the authorities may now push ahead with efforts to outlaw the ultra groups that played a key role in the 2011 popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, as well as in protests against the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi before its overthrow in a 2013 military coup and against his successor, general-turned-president Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
Egyptian media have in the last 18 months repeatedly portrayed the ultras as thugs funded by unidentified political forces — a coded reference to Morsi’s movement, the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Zamalek president Mortada Mansour — a colorful, larger-than-life character and controversial fixture of the Mubarak era who withdrew his presidential candidacy in elections in 2014 to allow Sisi to run unopposed — has tried unsuccessfully thus far to persuade the courts to ban UWK as a terrorist organization. Mortada’s efforts are part of a broader endeavor to criminalize protest, similar to developments in Turkey, where 35 hard-core soccer fans are standing trial for belonging to an illegal organization and attempting to topple the government.
Two Egyptian courts recently rejected Mortada’s petition on the grounds that they were not competent. However, a third court in January sentenced 20 UKW members to several years in prison on charges of inciting violence, assaulting security forces and damaging private property. Mortada has accused the UWK of trying to assassinate him. Denying the allegation that led to the arrest of scores of its members, the group has dubbed the Zamalek president “the regime’s dog.”
Mortada’s son, Ahmed, in line with the government’s blaming of UWK for the fans’ death, said in a tweet shortly after the stampede that has since been deleted that “soccer is only for respectable fans. No thugs are allowed here.”
Earlier, Ahmed charged in an interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books that the UWK was a front for the Brotherhood in a bid “to show the world that there is no stability in Egypt and to create problems for the current regime at universities and at stadiums.”
The stampede has refocused attention on stadiums as a major flashpoint of opposition to successive Egyptian governments. Tensions are likely to escalate in the coming weeks and months amid the expected intensification of efforts to outlaw the UWK, as well as the pending appeal against the sentencing to death of 21 fans of Port Said’s Al-Masri SC and lengthy prison sentences for others on charges that they were responsible for the brawl in the Suez Canal city in which fans of the other major Cairo club, Al-Ahly, were killed. (Soccer fans blamed security forces for instigating that riot.)
The influence of the ultras as a potent opposition force has been evident through their presence in student protests over the past year. The ultras’ style of protest, including its chants and jumping up and down, was replicated by students, some of whom were members of Ultras Nahdawy (Renaissance Ultras), the only group of ultras that is not linked to one specific soccer team and defines itself explicitly as political.
Nahdawy, whose name refers to the term used by the Brotherhood to describe its political and economic program, was formed by members of UWK and Ultras Ahlawy, the hard-core support group of Zamalek’s archrival Al-Ahly that was the target in the Port Said incident. It asserts that it has distanced itself from the Brotherhood since the group was outlawed.
The battles of the students in universities and soccer fans in stadiums is a contest for public space and against efforts by Sisi to depoliticize and demobilize young Egyptians emboldened by their success in overthrowing Mubarak and angered by the rolling back of the achievements of that rebellion.
It was the lack of tolerance for public dissent under Mubarak that had first propelled the soccer fans to the forefront of anti-government protest. Soccer assembles crowds and promotes solidarity, which can easily become a platform for political expression hostile to the authorities. History threatens to repeat itself under Sisi.
Egyptians under age 25 remain marginalized and numerous, and their disaffection was evident in their low turnout in the referendum and election held since Morsi’s ouster — in stark contrast to the large numbers of young people who participated in Egypt’s first free elections in 2012 after Mubarak’s overthrow.
Mindful of the danger posed by youth grievances, Sisi has created a National Youth Council to increase youth participation in politics and has expanded scholarship openings for study abroad. At the same time, he has warned students and youth against engaging in activity “with questionable political goals that serve the interests of unpatriotic groups in their endeavor to destroy the nation.”
Sisi’s warning appears to have so far fallen on deaf ears, with a large number of students, fans and youths showing a continued readiness to express their dissent from the Sisi political order on the streets. That readiness may grow in the wake of Sunday’s incident.