Egypt,  Football

Revolution, over and out

Guest post by Abu Faris

Extreme violence has always been quite commonplace at Egyptian football matches. Season after season, match after match, games have been regularly marred by pitch invasions, assaults on players and officials, death threats, the murder of opposition fans, street fighting, riots. For decades the old regime tolerated the excesses of the ultras associated with the leading Egyptian teams and the organised violence of Egyptian football. The violence of the ultras served as a vent for the general antipathy felt towards the regime. However, those who sup with the Devil had best do so with a long spoon – the random violence of the ultras might have been useful to the old regime in some ways; but the ultras themselves, drawn from the bleak streets of poverty striken districts of Cairo and the other cities were never going to be best friends with the sleek crooks and murderers of the old regime.

Well-organised and in favour of all sorts of ultra-violence, especially against the authorities or passers-by not pledging automatic and undying allegiance to their football team, the ultras served as the shock troops of last year’s Revolution, involved in some of the worst street fighting, ready for a ruck, taking their chants with them to the barricades. Even then, some of the more thoughtful revolutionaries were concerned about what was being unleashed. Today, thousands injured and at least 76 dead after the excesses in Port Said, one would have thought that there would be more force behind those who were concerned that the Revolution was being hijacked by fascistic hooligans with a keen line in neo-Nazi slogans and random street crime. Yet, that is far from the case. Hiding behind a smokescreen of conspiracy theory, chiefly involving the old regime and the present military junta, the thugs of Egyptian football are being not only let off the hook, but lauded as “martyrs” by interested parties ranging from the ultras themselves to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Weapons of all sorts are regularly taken into stadia – getting them past the incompetent and outnumbered police presence is hardly a difficulty, especially for the home team who can rely on the fact that the local police are almost certainly going to turn a blind eye to anything short of an anti-aircraft gun being blatantly wheeled past them through the turnstiles. The fact that the police are utterly corrupt, completely incompetent and vastly outnumbered by already over-excited and violence-prone fans is one issue. Another is that the cops are themselves locals – if they are not themselves fans of the local side, then they have to live amongst its fans on a daily basis. Last but not least it should be recalled that the Egyptian police are utterly despised and have been keeping a fairly low profile since their murderous rampages during last year’s Revolution. In all, even if the police wanted to intervene, they probably would not. At Port Said there was considerable evidence that the police contrived to allow a riot to take place and then when it was in full swing not only did nothing to stop it, but actively participated in the lethal assaults against the visitors from Cairo. How much of this was down to the local police actively supporting their own fellow townsmen against the hated Cairene is anyone’s guess – but frankly, this is much more likely than the wild conspiracy theories presently circulating.

The aftermath of yet another football related outrage has, in Egypt, taken a predictably conspiratorial turn. Newly elected parliamentarians, the press, the man waiting for the minibus to take him downtown are all thoroughly convinced that the violence in Port Said has a more sinister aspect to it. Far from being yet another example of the lethal thuggishness of Egypt’s notorious ultra hooligans, the incident is being played up as the cutting edge of a vast conspiracy involving former members of the old regime still embedded in the Interior Ministry hell-bent on disrupting a peaceful transition to Islamist rule. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have been implicated – they organised it all, assert some, in order to pretext extension of the hated Emergency Rule SCAF had previously promised would soon be dropped.

The fact that 76 people were murdered and thousands more injured in a disgusting display of everything that is going wrong in Egypt is conveniently left out of the picture. No more so than by the ultras of al-Ahly themselves, now – more than ever – keen to portray their continued rampage at every match their team plays as being some sort of bizarre extension of the Revolution and their dead as “martyrs” in the cause of that Revolution.

Egypt is out of control. Daily bank robberies, crimes against property and person, fill the news. Egyptian Arabic language forums are full of complaints from the population of Alexandria that their town is lawless, the police are in the pockets of the criminals, street violence is rife. Residents of Suez complain of price-rises, joblessness and a crooked police force that resorts to extreme violence at the drop of a hat. Cairo seethes with crowds of football hooligans now projected as defenders of the Revolution. Barricades go up, the security barriers before the Ministry of Interior are torn down. A million thugs and crooks now run the country, when once only a single family of thugs and crooks did so.

Revolutions are meant to turn the world upside down, but a sense of reality is not meant to fall out of its pockets as a consequence. I went to Tahrir Square for the first time in three months the other day, on the tedious task of fighting my way through the army of grasping petty thieves who masquerade as visa clerks at the Kafka-esque Mugamma on the edge of the Square. Last I was there, the place was full of young, hopeful Revolutionaries, cleaning up after themselves, policing themselves and chasing away the crooks. Last week Tahrir Square was filthy, a cardboard city full of beggars, pickpockets and football thugs. The revolutionary graffiti was gone, replaced with the crudely scrawled slogans of one set of ultras or another. It was an overcast, gloomy, bitterly cold day, with rain threatening. It seemed appropriate.

Egypt is become a state run by an unholy alliance of Islamists and football hooligans, watched over by a politicised army. Is this what we fought for a year ago, to be led by fascists and have our streets patrolled by private armies of ultra-violent thugs? Is this what the Revolution has come to?

It breaks my heart.

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