CAIRO — The Cairo Court for Urgent Matters ruled May 16 to designate all Ultras soccer fan groups as terrorist organizations and outlaw them across Egypt. The Ultras are zealous, hard-core fans known for their riotous behavior at matches. The two biggest groups, the Ultras Ahlawy and the Ultras Zamalek White Knights, count nearly 2 million youths among their ranks and constitute a formidable force at protests.
They are also a thorn in the side of Mortada Mansour, the owner of the Zamalek SC soccer team. Zamalek and Ahly are the two major league teams in Cairo and easily the most popular teams in the country, setting up a classic rivalry. Swept up in the thrill of a good match and the adrenaline of the crowd, the Ultras are known for getting quite rowdy. Mansour has accused the Ultras of attacking government buildings, storming the Ahly soccer club and attempting to assassinate the minister of sports. The recent terrorist designation is the outcome of a lawsuit he filed against the Ultras last September.
The court initially declined the case Jan. 27, citing a lack of jurisdiction, but after Mansour filed an appeal, it agreed to consider the case and eventually ruled in his favor. The court based its verdict on Egypt’s new terror law, which classifies terrorists as “any association, organization, group or gang that practices, aims at or calls for destabilizing public order, endangers society’s well-being or its safety interests or endangers social unity by using violence, power, threats or acts of terrorism to achieve its goals.”
On March 17, after investigating a brawl that broke out outside the Air Defense Stadium and resulted in the deaths of 22 civilians, Egypt’s Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat declared that the Ultras White Knights were the ones responsible for the violence. He said in a statement, “Members of the Zamalek fan club received money from the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group to commit acts of rioting and violence.”
Barakat is not the first person to accuse the Ultras of having ties to the Brotherhood. Since the 2013 military takeover, Egypt has witnessed the rise of “political Ultras,” such as the Ultras Nahdawy or the Ultras Masr Siyasi. These groups are openly opposed to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and call for the return of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. Nonetheless, they are careful not to claim any sort of direct relationship with the Brotherhood.
“We aren’t Muslim Brotherhood but we are defending the cause of those who have been treated unjustly,” Mohammed Magdy, spokesman for the Ultras Masr Siyasi in Abu Rawwash, Giza, told Al-Monitor. “We have to cut off this president. He has blood on his hands.”
As a result, the Egyptian state and civilians alike have come to view the Ultras not as a sports group but as a pro-Brotherhood political group.
The Ultras’ political activism, however, long predates the Sisi regime. In fact, the Ultras first gained significant international attention for the role they played in mobilizing support for the January 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. They have continued to play an active role in politics, using their vast networks of discontented youths to organize demonstrations in opposition to every ruler since Mubarak.
Amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent, the Ultras have proven difficult to eradicate, largely due to their loose organization and lack of hierarchy. Branches of the various Ultras groups continue to spring up around the country and act largely independently of each other. Unlike other opposition groups, they rarely post their plans to gather or protest on Facebook, but rather spread the news by word of mouth. As they have no central command or single leader, the state has no one specific it can target or jail.
This verdict, while it came at the behest of a civilian, falls neatly in line with the current regime’s agenda of outlawing opposition, which is likely why the court ruled in Mansour’s favor despite its clear lack of jurisdiction, said Ahmed Abdelnaby, a lawyer for the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression.
“Under the terrorist entities law, this case should have gone through a criminal court. You can’t declare a group to be a terrorist organization through a lawsuit,” Abdelnaby told Al-Monitor. “If the government wanted to investigate this organization, it should have gone through the proper channels.”
The ruling is a violation of Egyptians’ personal rights and a blow to democracy, according to Abdelnaby.
“These sports organizations are founded on the principles of freedom of expression,” Abdelnaby said. “Every democratic society depends on the freedom of individuals and groups to express themselves. This ruling violates that freedom.”
While ideologically the ruling is alarming, it is unlikely to be enforced, Abdelnaby said. None of the Ultras groups appear concerned, either, with no statements or reactions from the groups on any of their official websites or Facebook pages. Magdy, speaking on behalf of the Abu Rawwash Ultras, said the verdict would have no effect on the organization or its activities.
“We’ll keep going no matter what happens to us,” Magdy said. “No ruling, no verdict will stop us. This isn’t the first time they’ve tried to ban the Ultras and it won’t be the last. We’ll stay in the streets whether or not anyone is there with us. We’ll stay in the streets even if we’re the only ones left.”