Arab Autumn: Ultras seek justice for fan deaths

Story highlights

  • Al Ahly will play Esperance of Tunisia in Sunday's first leg of African Champions League final
  • Egyptian club has qualified despite its home league being suspended after Port Said tragedy
  • Al Ahly fan group -- known as ultras -- has become powerful enough to exert political pressure
  • Ultras are seeking justice for the 74 fans killed during stadium riot in February

Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Cairo is a city that has become addicted to the art of protest. But this protest wasn't like any of the others.

Outside a smart hotel in the city, several hundred well-appointed young men had gathered to express their frustrations at the new Egypt. Their livelihoods had been decimated since the revolution, they argued. And direct action was the only cure.

Except these young men were not bakers, or cab drivers, or stockbrokers, or former regime allies. They were professional soccer players, out of work and unpaid ever since 74 young fans died in a tragic incident at a match in Port Said in February and the domestic league was suspended.

In desperation they had decided to make their voices heard by blockading a hotel where players from Nigerian club Sunshine Stars were staying. It was a few hours before they were due to play Egypt's biggest and most successful soccer team Al Ahly in an African Champions League semifinal second leg.

They thought that if they could prevent the match from going ahead, Al Ahly would be disqualified and the authorities would take their plight seriously. But it didn't quite work out that way.

"I heard shots ... at first I thought it was gunshots but it was tear gas shots," recalled Nigerian soccer journalist Colin Udoh, describing how the police had tried to deal with the situation.

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"It was terrifying."

The players failed in their quest, but not because the police had cleared a path. That job had been achieved by a new group in Egyptian society that has entered the political conscience during the country's revolutionary times. It was members of the Ahlawy, an organized group of soccer fans -- known as "Ultras" -- who support Al Ahly that managed to escort the terrified players to the match.

"We only found out during rush hour that the players were having a march," said Mohamed, a member of the Ahlawy that led a group to "free" the Sunshine Stars players.

"We contacted each other by BBM and SMS and congregated. There were fights with the players. I think one of the players had a gun. They prevented the Sunshine players from going to the game. We had to let the game go on. We cleared the way for the bus."

The Ahlawy led the players to the bus and arranged an escort to the stadium.

"It is a unique position, to see fans with that much power," said Udoh.

"When the players were coming down the fans were applauding them. On the drive to the stadium 2,000 fans were lining the road applauding us. Inside the bus they didn't understand it. They thought they were angry with them."

Al Ahly won that match and reached this weekend's final of the African Champions League. It has been an emotional, tragic season for the club, one that has encompassed revolution, riots and death. And at the center of it all has been the Ahlawy, one of the last revolutionary forces left in Egypt today.

The group was formed in 2007, in the dark before the dawn, and is led by a man named Assad. Mubarak was as strong as he had ever been, winning a decisive victory in a recent Presidential election, even though massive fraud had allegedly taken place. His son Gamal was being groomed as his successor.

Egypt felt hopeless. I had met Assad outside the KFC on Tahrir Square, long before it had become synonymous with this revolution. He had agreed to escort me to Egypt's biggest match: Al Ahly versus Zamalek, the Cairo derby.

Assad was young, fresh faced and passionate, with designer glasses perched on his nose. He was in his early 20s, fiercely intelligent, educated in England, and drove a BMW.

The Ahly Ultras (they would not be known as the Ahlawy for a few years yet) had only just formed but they were sure who the enemy was back then: Zamalek and their own ultra group, the UWK: the Ultras White Knights.

Assad stood on the terrace with his gang of no more than a few hundred screaming abuse at the opposition. Tens of thousands of riot police stood between the two groups, impenetrable. Plain-clothes officers randomly hauled out supporters, taking them away to be searched. It felt like martial law had been imposed.

"The two biggest political parties in Egypt are Ahly and Zamalek," Assad explained at the time.

"It's bigger than politics. It's more about escapism."

Violence had been contained to the two fan groups. There was no political edge. Instead, away from the tightly-controlled derbies, fighting flourished. Youth team matches were marred by riots.

"There's always horrible fights there," admitted Assad.

But then something began to shift. The Ahlawy's numbers grew. More people found a place to express their frustration at the suffocating regime of Mubarak. Each game became increasingly more political and anti-authoritarian.

The next time I meet Assad was 61 days after the fall of Mubarak in 2011. He and 7,000 members of the Ahlawy crowded into one end of Cairo's Military Stadium for the restart of the Egyptian football league.

Violence between politicized ultras and the police had gotten so bad that the Egyptian FA had suspended all matches, but after pleading that half the league would go bankrupt, the FA relented.

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Hundreds of police officers dressed head to foot in black riot gear stood looking at the crowd as the men and boys in red gleefully reminded them and their former paymasters of their position in the new post-revolutionary Egypt.

"F*** the mother of Hosni Mubarak!" they shouted at the police.

"Go **** your (former Interior) Minister, Habib al Adly!"

Ironically their opposition on the pitch that day was Al Shorta, the police club.

This show of dissent would have been ruthlessly cut down a few months previously. But now Mubarak was under arrest in a hospital bed near the Red Sea, and al Adly now languished, along with the president's sons, the former prime minister and other members of the country's elite, in the same jail where he would send the former regime's political prisoners.

"Can you imagine? What must they all must be saying to each other," Assad, now no longer wearing his glasses, shouted over the deafening sound of abuse. "You could write a film about it. The police would abuse us every day. Now it's our time."

In the four years since they began, the Ahlawy had changed from a group aping European football culture to a major thorn in the former regime's side.

"The whole concept of any independent organization didn't exist, not unions, not political parties. Nothing was organized. And then we started to organize football ultras," Assad explained.

"It was just sport then. But to them it was the youth, in big numbers -- very smart people -- who could mobilize themselves quickly. They feared us."

The Ahlawy soon grew into something more violent and anti-authoritarian. Members were arbitrarily beaten and arrested by the police. Fans were harassed by being strip-searched. Assad himself had been arrested and thrown in jail.

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Ahly's matches provided a microcosm of the heavy-handedness that the rest of the country felt on a daily basis in Mubarak's Egypt. But unlike the activists and the other opposition groups that had been quickly neutered, the ultras fought back.

"The more they tried to put pressure on us, the more we grew in cult status. The ministry and the media, they would call us a gang, as violent," he said. "It wasn't just supporting a team, you were fighting a system and the country as a whole.

"We were fighting the police, fighting the government, fighting for our rights ... The police did what they wanted. The government did what they want. And the ultras taught us to speak our mind. This was something new, a little bit of a seed that was planted four years later."

The skills that Assad and Al Ahlawy had honed during four years of fighting the police came in handy when the January 25 revolution, and the "Day of Rage" that took place three days later, saw the confrontation between the authorities -- who had decades of experience quashing dissent -- and a wholly unprepared public turn violent.

"I don't want to say we were solely responsible for bringing down Mubarak," Assad laughed. "But our role was to make people dream, letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back, not just run away.

"This was a police state. Our role started earlier than the revolution. During the revolution, there was the Muslim Brotherhood, the activists and the ultras. That's it."

Later, after the match, the Ahlawy would meet at a famous old bar off Tahrir Square called Horriya -- "Freedom" -- a yellowing relic to Egypt's liberal heyday where we drank one-dollar bottles of Stella -- the local beer -- and talked about the future.

Compared to the suffocating security of the past, there were no police or army on the street. A camp of activists still occupied Tahrir Square. People argued about politics on the street. Sometime it would end in fist fights. It was flawed and chaotic. But it was free.

Then came Port Said. As Egypt limped towards presidential elections, the ultras had become increasingly prominent. Al Ahly's distinctive red flag would be seen at marches as thousands of members would turn up, driving the chants and often bringing with them red flares.

Al Ahly had won the restarted Egyptian league and had hoped to maintain that dominance when they traveled to Port Said to play Al Masr.

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What happened next shocked the world. More than 70 young men were killed when the stand the Al Ahly supporters were in was attacked by opposition fans. The Ahlawy maintained that the deaths were not simply thuggery, but planned as revenge for their role in the revolution. The authorities deny those claims.

But as the trial of those the authorities claim are responsible drags on, the Ahlawy has used direct action to halt the resumption of the league until justice has been served. The threat of violence has meant that all African Champions League matches in Egypt have been held behind closed doors.

The paralysis has, on the one hand, shown the ultras to be a powerful force, one that the authorities seem unwilling to confront. On the other it has also led to the suspension of the league, which could have long-term effects not just on Al Ahly but the national team too.

Former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley has spoken movingly about respecting the Port Said dead and the need for justice, but he too wants the league to resume. After all, he is charged with taking Egypt to the 2014 World Cup finals -- a dream he believes could have a unifying effect on the country.

Now the focus is on the African Champions League final against Esperance of Tunisia -- the defending champions. Al Ahly's journey towards a record-extending seventh ACL title has been nothing short of incredible given the problems back home. They even managed to get caught up in civil unrest in Mali when a coup took place earlier in the tournament.

But the Ahlawy will not be in the stadium for Sunday's home leg in Alexandria, despite the authorities allowing up to 20,000 fans to attend -- the first time that has happened since Port Said. They won't attend a match until they receive justice for the Port Said dead. That doesn't mean they won't be watching and willing their team on.

"That is how we want to honor the people that died at Port Said," said Mohammed, articulating the Ahlawy's complex position of protest, boycott and support.

"We honor them by winning this trophy."

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