From football to facebook?: The long road to revolution in Egypt

I was standing in Tahrir Square in September on what had become a “typical” Friday: protesters were slowing trickling into the midan–some wrapped in Egyptian flags, some with black, white, and red painted faces, mothers and children, bearded men in white, students in t-shirts and jeans–and it seemed to be a lull, a moment of calm before something. A few protesters were anxious, not knowing how many would come to the streets that day, the post-revolutionary apprehension that plagued committed activists each week as the mosques emptied and the military guard, effectively a glorified-if-heavily-armed traffic control force, looked on. Over the chants of small pockets of activists, the hum of afternoon prayer, and the calls of street vendors selling soft drinks and snack food, a much louder rumbling was approaching. The Kasr al Nil bridge was suddenly overrun with people, cheering loudly, moving in one powerful mass toward Tahrir. Their sound, their collective footsteps filled the public space, even though their numbers certainly could not even come close to those in the same midan at the peak of revolution. Who? I thought. As if to answer my unspoken question, my friend Farida nodded toward the approaching crowd: “The Ultras,” she said, “are here.”  


I am in the throes of writing my Master’s thesis, and the editing process has caused me to dig into a few topics I had not (or only cursorily) covered in my first drafts. This is one of those topics. I argue in a section on recent history of social movements in Egypt that the revolution was a long time in the making, a fact that is evidenced by the gradual upsurge in protest and strike activity within the last ten years. Along with pro-democracy groups like Kefaya and workers’ solidarity movements like the April 6th Youth, Egyptian football clubs deserve a mention. They represent an important connection between the events of January-February 2011 and past protests, mobilizations, and clashes with state forces. In addition, the football “Ultras” highlight the ways in which the offline and online dimensions of revolutionary politics in Egypt interacted in important ways.

The Offline Spaces of Political Identity: Football Clubs 

Egypt’s football teams and their fans made international news not long ago during the Port Said tragedy, a bloody massacre of Al Ahly football fans and players following their loss to rival Al Masry in Port Said, resulting in over 70 deaths. The violent scene on February 1 came with a great degree of uncertainty and confusion — questions about whether Al Masry fans (or perhaps a small group of thugs) had been allowed to enter the stadium with knives and other weapons. Fans and observers also suspected an intentional lack of intervention on the part of riot police at the pitch, perhaps due to the prominent role played by Ahlawy (the Al Ahly fans) during the Egyptian Revolution. The news around Port Said died down momentarily until a ruling by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) which banned Al Masry from playing for two years erupted in the news at the end of March. The decision outraged Al Ahly fans as well as Al Masry supporters, resulting in new waves of protest and violence in response to the decision.  

On the surface, these clashes might seem like dismissible instances of classic football hooliganism — the pointless violence commonly associated with the world’s most antagonistic teams, but such an analysis would only scrape the surface of the identity politics playing out in Egypt’s football clubs, a politics which Ashraf El Sherif calls the “politics of fun” in his article for Jadaliyya. Sherif points out that football has become an outlet for Egypt’s disadvantaged and disgruntled youth, a way of congregating and organizing that provided key advantages in the revolutionary moment. James Montague, author of When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, writes in an article for The Guardian: “Egyptian football has long been a hotbed of rivalries, antagonism and politics. The game has an illustrious history with the country’s leading club, Al Ahly, having started life over a century ago, largely as a symbol against then British rule. The team name even translates as The National.”  

Indeed, under the repressive politics of the Mubarak regime, which prohibited freedom of assembly and speech under the Emergency Law, offline politics migrated to the everyday spaces of interaction including sites like churches, mosques, and–you guessed it–football stadiums. The “Ultras” as the most vehement fans are often called, refer not to one particular team but to the most active and aggressive supporters of any football club, particularly Al Ahly (Cairo) Zamalek (Cairo), and Al Masry (Port Said). And as several articles including this one in Al Masry Al Youm and this one from the National Post acknowledge the significant contribution of these extreme fans to the Egyptian Revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Memorable scenes like the battle for Kasr Al Nil bridge (see Al Masry Al Youm video here) depicted bold, fearless protesters taking on rows of armored police forces, and quite often, the Ultras were leading the charge. Quite importantly, it was not the first time that football fans were in the line of fire.  

Understanding “Ultra” Political Football 

Al Ahly football club began in 1907 as an outlet for nationalist students and anti-British sentiment that was surging against colonial rule (see the history of the Al Ahly according to FIFA). It became the long-standing rival of Zamalek SC, which was seen to represent the foreign elite. Al Masry, or “the Egyptian,” was similarly nationalistic, founded in 1920 following the revolution against British rule the year before. It represented the native Egyptian population of Port Said against the predominant teams which enjoyed expat support. Egyptian national football has always been “political” in the sense that it has been deeply embedded in the identity politics of everyday life.   The Ultras phenomenon is more recent, developing in the 1980s alongside increasing wealth inequality as a result of encroaching neoliberalism.

The Ultras are a modern reaction to the politics of complacency, of deference to foreign influences and domestic negligence of a new kind in an independent Egypt. Their occasional bouts of hooliganism, a style of organized, rowdy intimidation practiced in the streets and aimed at opponents’ supporters, brought them into regular contact with Egyptian police. Unlike many other would-be protesters in 2011, Ultras fans had developed strategies for resisting police–teargas, rubber bullets, and riot gear–and were not afraid of inevitable violent confrontations. Their near recklessness and street experience were a distinct advantage in Cairo’s urban battlefield. Al Ahly Ultras (Ahlawy) and Zamalek Ultras (the White Knights) made significant, visible contributions to revolutionary tactics and fervor, even when their strategies sometimes resulted in violent clashes in the aftermath of February 2011 (marches on the Interior Ministry and an attack on the Israeli Embassy to name two).  

Football Club Contributions to Street Politics 

1. Organization

According to FIFA, Al Ahly is one of the most organized football clubs in the Middle East. The Ultras fans of Ahly and Zamalek SC reflect this level of organization in their fan base. Fans collaborate and communicate regularly about not only game- and team-related events but also about the politics of their rivalries. The teams and their fans have webpages, Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts, and they meet in the public places of football stadiums, cafes, and street corners. The Ultras are not ad hoc swarms of disconnected fans — they are a political-athletic culture with their own organization and logic.  

2. Experience

Perhaps more than any other activists who made their way to Tahrir Square in January 2011, Egypt’s Ultras had experienced police brutality on a mass scale and had developed an awareness of how to deal with the riot tactics of the regime. Their experience with tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot lines coupled with their rowdy, aggressive disregard for authority allowed them to be not only a resource for newly mobilized protesters but also leaders in breaking through police tactics. They could meet police violence with a kind of fearless (yes, even reckless) aggression that allowed the pro-revolutionary activists to win decisive battles like Kasr al Nil bridge. They made a critical difference on the days of the worst onslaught against the peaceful protesters in Tahrir, including the day of the camel attacks.  

3. Morale

Cheering and chanting has long been an integral part of all sports fandom, and the Ultras are no exception. In the revolutionary moment, their cheers and chants became some of the most memorable rallying cries. Their revolutionary role in helping to create and maintain the ethos of revolution has been a long time in the making, as Abdul Rahman al Taliawi points out his his article for Jadaliyya about one of the Ultras’ songs “Shams Hurriya.” In addition, their presence is powerful — it is imbued with energy and passion cultivated on the pitch and mobilized and magnified to great result in the protests that toppled Mubarak.  

4. Identity

As I mentioned above, membership in a football fan club is part of the identity politics of contemporary Egypt. In a neoliberal context where many youth are unemployed and disenfranchisement and marginalization have become the norm, subaltern identities find articulation through various alternative channels — outside of mainstream socialization or politics. (And in the case of authoritarian regimes, politics is rarely appropriated to the people.) The Ultras are one site of articulation, of symbolic identity in the everyday lives of individuals (not unlike how the online membership in Facebook or the outward meanings associated with owning a smart phone create symbolic identities of their own). Many of these various identities overlap and interact — Ultras fans can be Facebook members or smart phone owners — a result of the contemporary communicative environment in Egypt.  

Offline-Online Dialectic

This is a fancy term that basically means that the offline and the online exist in relation to one another, a relation that is constantly under negotiation. The success of the 18 days of protest in 2011 that forever changed the shape of Egyptian politics was the result of a confluence of groups, individuals, expertise, and technologies. There can be no doubt that “new media” played a role in shaping the new Arab public sphere, as Marc Lynch and others call it. He writes in his new book: “The transformation that led to the Arab uprising starts with new information and communications technologies, including satellite television, the Internet, and cheap mobile phones. […] this generational, structural change in the nature of political communication represents the most fundamental and significant real effect of these new media.” Moreover, it was the normalization of these new technologies and communicative avenues in the everyday lives of Middle Eastern youth and the educated middle classes and the ability of wired individuals to negotiate the digital divide on a daily basis.

Before the revolution, online activists and dissidents in Egypt (where I have done my Master’s work) were primarily membered of this wired “elite” whose disillusionment with the regime and the political status quo led them to seek out alternative spaces of communication because the offline places of everyday life were heavily regulated and surveilled. Some activists and politically inclined individuals had offline spaces in which to congregate without excessive government intrusion or crackdown — most notably Islamists who could recruit and communicate legitimately in the context of the mosques. Football fans constituted another such demographic of potential activists — permitted to “organize” under the banner of irreverent, unruly hooliganism. Even though they faced police intervention, their physical congregation in the offline spaces of the street and sports arenas continued comparatively unimpeded.

The difference between the offline mobilizations of the Islamists and the Ultras, perhaps, lay in football fans’ frequent confrontations with security forces that gave them an organizational training of sorts in street combat. In addition, the Ultras cultivated an online presence that uniquely straddled the chasm between offline mobilization and online communication.   While many Islamist groups have only recently become more prominent presences on Facebook and Twitter, Ultras clubs have huge, well-established followings, and their pages were created as early as 2007. In addition, they often publish political information, commentary, and photos of protests. Activists I spoke with indicated that they occasionally sought out information about the revolution on the Ahly Ultras webpage, and one person indicated that the website had been taken down once when he tried to access it, possibly the result of a counterrevolutionary tactic.

Because the Egyptian revolution, like the other Arab uprisings of 2011, was the result of a confluence of motivations and circumstances ranging from the geopolitical to the technological, it is crucial to dissect the role of groups like the Ultras not only for their role in culture, identity and politics leading up to the revolutionary moment but also for their position as a group with offline mobility and online connectivity. If the Ultras’ offline actions, experiences, and tactics were their most significant and iconic contributions to the revolution, what does this mean about the importance of online space to actors with well-established offline presences? How have the youth culture of football fandom and the generational distribution of new technology use created and transformed cultural, social, and political identities among Egypt’s newly mobilized activist population? Can the politics of football, or “fun” as El Sherif put it, translate into the participatory politics at the ballot box? Looking at “offline” actors (who have always enjoyed some spatial mobility under the repressive politics of authoritarianism) and their online presence with the same scrutiny with which we have begun to analyze Egypt’s “online” actors and their post-revolutionary offline presence will yield important insights into the future of political information flows and the fate of representative politics.    

Reading List 

Lynch, Marc. (2012). The Arab Uprising. New York: Public Affairs.