By Bassem N. Hafez
The newly released book, “The Ultras: When Fans Cross Natural Boundaries,” by Mohamed Gamal Beshir, aka Gemyhood, is a timely contribution to the growing slew of non-fiction books of subjects relating to the Jan. 25 revolution. The rise of the new formations of football fans has swept the scene in Egypt for the past few years with controversy. Before the roots of the phenomenon and its similar examples in Latin America, Europe, and even in the Arab Maghreb region were unveiled to the public, the Ultras were regarded as just a colorful cheerleading experience in our stadiums.
They competed with the TV post-match analysis programs that only served in advertising new consumer goods. They also clashed simultaneously with police forces and the establishment that only wanted to maintain order even among football fans that have been labeled and eyed with suspicion. Thousands of football enthusiasts gathering at one place is always a potential threat according to the pro-stability security apparatus. Thus the Ultras were treated as anarchists challenging the stability of the nation.
Gemyhood’s compelling book tells the story of the football fans that retained life at the stadiums, resisted all demoralization, and added a tremendous weight to the protesters in the streets against the regime. The passion and faith Ultras members have are unmatched. Stories of loyalty and devotion to the team and the group speak of true heroism. The growth into a movement that is marked with awareness and solidarity is beyond comprehension. Between the lines one can easily link this occurrence to the quest for public space that has been in production for a decade or so.
Gemyhood recites the story of the French Ultras fan of Olympique de Marseille, Santos, who in 2008 was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in Spain after his group clashed with the police. The clash erupted over the subjective perception of the police to the group’s Batch as offensive. We learn that the Ultras’ Batch is the spirit and honor of the group, thus the most sacred icon, hence nonnegotiable. The sentence was reduced to four years after plenty of diplomatic pressure. The international outcry engineered by different Ultras groups, including Egypt’s Ultras White Knights of Zamalek and Ahly’s Ultras Ahlawy transformed Santos into an icon.
Another story from Egypt reflects regional political awareness and solidarity in which heated confrontations took place between security forces on one hand and both the Ultras Ahlawy and the Yellow Dragons of Ismailia during the game in which the two rival groups cheered for Palestine celebrating the ninth anniversary of the second Intifada.
The fear of the police state of possible unity between the two groups fits within the framework of the divide-and-rule strategy employed to keep the population segregated in order not to focus on the multiple failures of an ailing regime. This also sheds some light on the intellectual part of the Egyptian protest movement that did not only focus on the internal situation, but rather the regional setup that reflected the deep crises of the Arab regimes.
There’s a link between the support of the state to the modern form and dynamics of football, which aims to extract the dynamism of football supporters into static consumption in front of the TV screen. This also fits within the same context of demobilizing the population and segregating them outside the realm of the streets. This is exactly one of concerns and evils the Ultras have been fighting against. The banners held by the fans at stadiums, “Against Modern Football”, reflect the devotion to the human aspect of cheerleading at both the stadiums and the streets, which serves in social mobilization and focus the attention on the enemy, “neo-liberalism,” that is being promoted by a retreating state.
This has been manifested in boycotting products of companies advertising on TV programs that transform the popular sport into a static form of interaction; rejecting media that has been employed by the state to defame them and the brutality of the police troops. The slogan “A.C.A.B” is an abbreviation of “All Cops Are Bastards.” It reflects a long history of clashes and confrontation incited by the state to subdue these groups and other forms of social mobilization. It’s noteworthy to study the Ultras from the prism of the New Social Movements (NSMs) that have challenged these endeavors and succeeded in mobilizing the masses in a non-conventional form of (political) participation. It transcended the age, gender, class, and ideological divisions in a progressive way, which made it incomprehensible to the state to manipulate.
The January 25 uprising was a spontaneous act of revolt against structures of domination. The Ultras were instrumental in this direction before, during and after the downfall of Mubarak. Protesters in the streets dreamed on many occasions of the Ultras heroes to come to the rescue when the security troops were getting tough against their expressions of celebrating human life and its yearning for freedom. The way the Ultras groups enter Tahrir Square, with their signature chants, slogans, graffiti, flags, and even flares, gave hope to the protestors.
Ashraf El-Sherif elaborates on this point in his book, “The Ultras and Power to the Politics of Fun,” detailing the many advances achieved by the Ultras over the past decade in Egypt. He emphasizes that the Ultras represent a civilizational or generational clash between the dull pace of life imposed by a dying state, or establishment, and a young progressive revolutionary spirit. This spirit consolidated its presence, ending the myth of “stability” enjoyed by the majority of the Egyptian middle class.
Being football fans does not render the Ultras politically insignificant. On Jan. 25, 2011, the Ultras was discovered to be the only group in Egypt that has the experience of fighting fire with fire, i.e. dealing with the heavy-handedness of the brutal police forces. It wasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Movement or Al-Baradie’s National Association for Change; it was the Ultras. It might have been an irrational expression of resistance and anger, but who said a revolution was a rational act?
El-Sherif adds in this regard that a revolution by definition needs a spirit that is brave, confrontational, and exceptional to translate the deadlock and impossibility of standard solution to the political upheaval. Thus the Ultras groups were more of a necessity than a natural outcome. The revolution, in the words of Fawaz Tarabulsi, required a drastic transformation in concepts. Hence the phenomenon we are witnessing here necessitated the elements of dynamism, organization, positivism, challenging the notions of the patriarch, notoriety and team work.
The Ultras’ unconditional support to their teams, whether they win or lose, reflects unrestricted faith in an idea and working relentlessly to support and improve it. Their motivation and organizational capacities in achieving that goal, using team work in an unmatched creativity, induces hope and inspiration. The dynamics of the process brings (positive) patriotism and freedom to the forefront, two critical values that have been subdued and suppressed by the ailing regime but are experiencing rebirth.
The important values of competition and perfection were only seen in the Ultras’ choreography at the stadiums. These are indeed the values and traits needed the most in post-Mubarak Egypt. The unrelenting attempts by Mubarak’s security apparatus to subjugate this spirit of innovation brought forward a notorious and rebellious spirit that comes with the package, i.e. the challenge to the patriarch. The financial independence of the Ultras groups made them beyond the control of their clubs’ administrations, and their free spirit helped them challenge the police troops.
The famous songs by Ultras White Knights’ “We Won’t Forget Tahrir” and Ultras Ahlawy’ “You Crow” shed a light on the ignorance, corruption and brutality of the regime. These specific songs that gained tremendous popularity emphasize a spirit that has transcended the barriers of fear, and has been taking the creative initiative to propagate a new culture very much needed in post-Mubarak Egypt. The Ultras succeeded in appealing to the ears and eyes of the masses through these artistic expressions, and were equally successful in appealing to the hearts of the Egyptians by their creative and organized acts of protest against an oppressive state. But conceptualizing all this with a new mentality means they succeeded in appealing to our minds. The values of understanding, tolerance and acceptance will mark the future of revolutionary Egypt.