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Arrest of Ultras members casts pall on Afcon 2019

As Egypt prepares to host Afcon 2019, the government is taking stringent measures to control access to the games and ensure there is no repeat of the violent confrontations that have taken place in recent years.

As Egypt prepares to host the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) from June 21 to July 19 for the fifth time, the focus is on logistics and infrastructure in the five host cities — Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said and Suez. However, the Egyptian media hardly discusses the Ultras, the hardcore soccer fans who helped popularize the sport in Egypt, providing nearly as much entertainment as the games. One possible reason the Ultras are not mentioned is the key role they played in the January 25 Revolution in 2011, and their political activism since.

Because of their organizational skills and experience confronting security forces during games, the Ultras were at the forefront of the mass protests that led to the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak. But just as the Egyptians have come to see the revolution in a new light in recent years — with some now considering it a conspiracy to destroy the country — the public perception of the Ultras has been transformed: The diehard fans celebrated as heroes in the early post-revolution days are now largely perceived by government supporters as troublemakers and vandals — terrorists even. The turnabout is partly the result of a May 2015 court ruling outlawing their existence as a soccer fan club or movement. A restrictive ban on their attendance of live games, in place for the most part since 2012, also led the Ultras to lose their main space of public expression. While the ban was partly lifted in 2018, analysts such as Ziad Akl, senior researcher at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and an ardent Al Ahly fan, believes "it effectively still exists."

"We have not seen [Ultras] fans in the stadiums since 2012. Only a limited number are now allowed to watch the games live [up to roughly 5,000] but they are not the hardcore fans. They are mostly fans who have been invited to attend or members of various sports clubs." Akl told Al-Monitor.

The fierce government backlash to the Ultras' use of soccer to trumpet their political views — by way of songs, anti-government chants and banners — has also included violent confrontations with the supporters of Al-Ahly (Ultras) and Zamalek (Ultras White Knights), the country's main soccer clubs. More than 70 fans were killed and 500 others were injured in a February 2012 "massacre" at a stadium in Port Said, described by one health official at the time as "the biggest disaster in Egypt's soccer history." Clashes between supporters of rival teams Al-Masry and Al-Ahly erupted after the former won the game 3-1. Surprisingly, the violence was initiated by fans of the winning team who stormed the stadium stands and pitch after the game, attacking the Ultras with clubs and knives. Many of the deaths were caused by an ensuing stampede as the Al-Ahly fans tried to escape the carnage only to find the stadium gates tightly sealed.

In February 2015, more than 20 people were killed and dozens were injured when police used tear gas and fired shotgun pellets on a crowd of thousands of Zamalek supporters who were trying to gain entry to a game between Zamalek and ENPPI in Cairo's military-owned Air Defense Stadium. The fans, the majority of whom had no tickets because the authorities had set a limit of 5,000 spectators for the game, were crammed into a narrow passageway lined with barbed wire when they were attacked by the security forces. Local media said most of the deaths were caused by asphyxiation and choking while some had resulted from a stampede as the fans had tried to flee the mayhem.

Meanwhile, police blamed the deaths on the fans themselves who allegedly tried to force their way into the stadium. But some analysts and survivors believe the killings in both tragedies were "deliberate” and "revenge on those who took part in the revolution."

"It is ironic that the violence has been blamed on the fans even though they were the victims; dozens lost their lives in the tragic incidents and hundreds have since been arrested and detained," Akl said. 

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed power in June 2014, members of both the Ultras and Ultras White Knights (UWK) have been targeted in a harsh security crackdown on dissent that has also targeted activists, journalists, artists and members of the LGBTQ community. The arrests and detention of hundreds of its members has prompted the Ultras to freeze its activities indefinitely. On May 16, 2018, the group announced on its Facebook page that it was disbanding, citing the arrests of its members by police as the reason for the decision. Later that month, the UWK followed suit, posting pictures of the group's banner being set on fire. Shortly afterward, UWK leaders, however, denied the dissolution of the group and vowed to continue its activities.

Adding to the tension, the UWK has been embroiled in a longstanding dispute with Mortada Mansour, the chairman of Zamalek who is also a member of parliament. The legal complaint he filed, calling for all Ultras groups to disband, resulted in the court ruling declaring the Ultras "an illegal terrorist organization."

"The UWK are targeted because they are the most organized and are more politically active than other groups," said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a left-wing journalist and ardent Zamalek fan.

“The crackdown on Zamalek supporters has intensified of late in an apparent bid to round up the fans before the start of the Afcon, because the regime is worried about protests taking place during the championship. It is ironic that Egypt is hosting the tournament while arresting soccer fans ahead of games," he told Al-Monitor. 

Recent efforts to revive the soccer fan clubs have gotten some of their members in hot water. On May 15, the UWK wrote on its Twitter account that security forces had in the past month raided the homes and workplaces of several UWK members, forcibly disappearing them. "Our heroes are resilient and will not be the last soccer fans to be subjected to enforced disappearances," read the tweet that also called for "Freedom for Mustafa, Adham, Tiha, Hussein, Hamimo and Abu Hima," in an apparent reference to the group's members that were "forcibly disappeared."

On May 20, UWK leaders Adham Mohamed and Fathi Mohamed were detained for 15 days due to their efforts to revive the UWK, according to rights lawyer Mohamed Hafez. He told Al-Monitor that several members of the Ultras were also under investigation over their attempts to revive Ultras Ahlawy, the supporters club of Al-Ahly and the first Ultras group in Egypt.

The recent arrests have cast a dark shadow over the upcoming championship, leaving many wondering whether and how the state can strike a balance between its desire to restrict the public space on the one hand and using sports to strengthen ties with other African countries on the other. 

"Egypt is currently heading the African Union and was chosen as the host of the Afcon because it has a suitable infrastructure to host a tournament of this magnitude. The state has a tendency to use soft power to further its interests, especially in Africa and sporting events are part of that soft power," Akl noted.

"There is also a willingness on the part of the government to invest in soccer. This is not possible when the games are played in an empty stadium," he added.

While the government wants the fans to return to the stadiums, they are tightly controlling who gets to attend. The sale of tickets for the Afcon games has been restricted to an online booking website called Tazkarti (My Ticket) and Tazkarti booths located at youth centers and sports clubs. Touted by organizers as "the only safe and legal platform" for purchasing the tickets, the website is "a database that allows the organizers to gather information through 'fan IDs' about the attendees and control who gets access to the games," Akl said.

Hamalawy added, "The stadiums will be packed but not with soccer's most fervent fans; the government may send army conscripts to fill the stands if need be."

The organizers, however, are turning a deaf ear to the criticism. Hany Abu Rida, head of the local organizing committee for Afcon 2019, told Cafonline, "Egypt will organize an exceptionally successful tournament. We are working 24/7 to prepare for the event and promise to produce the best ever tournament regarding organization, hosting and hospitality."

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