LATE AT NIGHT, waiting as instructed by the Opera House on the island of Zamalek, my phone rings. “You know the lions by the bridge? Meet us there.”
I go to the statues standing sentry at the bridge over the Nile, then another call comes in. “You are by the lions? Good. Come onto the bridge, we’ll pick you up.”
I wander onto Qasr al-Nil. It is thronged with young couples enjoying the cool Cairo night. A final phone call: “Okay. We see you, wait there.”
A car pulls up with three young men in it. I get in and we speed away from the center of the city. They don’t hang around because they fear the police are after them. They move houses and change their phone numbers every couple of days, and they don’t dare visit their families. “It’s a sacrifice,” says one, “but not like the sacrifice those in jail are making.”
The young men are leading members of the Ultras White Knights (UWK) — a group of hard-core football fans of Zamalek SC, one of Egypt’s most successful football clubs. After we find a safe place to talk, they occasionally glance at the tape recorder as if it might explode. Ultras rarely speak to the media, but this is an exceptional time.
Dozens of members have been arrested as the group has become locked in an escalating feud — characterized by bitter accusations, protests, pranks, and an alleged assassination attempt — with lawyer, politician, and Zamalek Sporting Club President Mortada Mansour, one of Egypt’s most influential and infamous men.
Mansour has brought a series of private lawsuits against the UWK, and a court will soon decide whether the group should be banned and designated as terrorists.
It had been a few days since Zamalek lost on penalties in the Egyptian Super Cup to their Cairene arch-rivals Al Ahly. The Ultras White Knights were still raw about the defeat. “We lost because God punished Zamalek for Mansour,” deadpanned one of the Ultras.
“We made a song about him,” laughed another, referring to a popular video uploaded by the Ultras. “We call him the ‘dog of the regime.’”
The Ultras’ 62-year-old nemesis was a high-profile figure under Hosni Mubarak. He is a fervent supporter of the military and an ally of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Mansour ran a short-lived presidential campaign earlier this year, during which he said he would ban social media if it proved to be a threat to the nation’s security, and would declare war on Ethiopia if it maintained its position on construction of a controversial dam.
Less than a week later Mansour announced that he was pulling out of the presidential race after receiving a sign from God that former military chief Al-Sisi would win.
Mansour is a polar bear of a man: heavyset and lumbering, with gray-white, cumulus hair. He is renowned for his foul-mouthed and theatrical denunciations of opponents. His mouth gapes when he is animated, and he waggles his finger in admonishment — his glance darts around, as if daring someone to challenge him.
The rhetoric between Mansour and the Ultras has long been testy, but since March 2014, when Mansour became Zamalek’s president, relations have descended into all-out acrimony.
The Ultras accuse Mansour of preventing them from entering the club’s sporting complex and failing to work toward lifting a ban on spectators attending matches. In early August the clubhouse was vandalized. Mansour blamed the Ultras, while the UWK denied responsibility.
The stakes of the feud were dramatically upped in the early hours of August 17. Mansour alleges that he was leaving the sporting club when a group of men, armed with shotguns, attempted to assassinate him, injuring three people; Mansour emerged unscathed. He accused the attackers of being both Ultras and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Ultras claim that either nothing happened, or Mansour staged it. “This is all a game,” dismissed one leading Ultra. Several UWK members were arrested during the following days in connection with the alleged attack, and many leading Ultras went into hiding. The Ultras responded to the arrests by taking to the streets — a risky move since protests have effectively been banned. Dozens were arrested.
Although 36 members of the UWK were acquitted on October 30 of breaking the Protest Law, 11 Ultras remain accused of trying to assassinate Mansour, and two are charged with trashing the clubhouse, according to the Ultras’ lawyer Tarek El-Awady.
Three more Ultras were arrested after an incident on October 12, when some men threw a bag of murky liquid at Mansour on the street. Mansour declared that it was nitric acid, while the Ultras said that the bag contained a scatological cocktail of urine and feces, and were happy to claim responsibility.
The court hearings are taking place over the next few weeks and a final ruling on Mansour’s lawsuit to ban the UWK as a terrorist organization is expected soon.
“I see the Muslim Brotherhood behind them, using their last supporters — the Ultras — to show the world that there is no stability in Egypt and to create problems for the current regime at universities and at stadiums,” Amir Mortada Mansour told me. (Amir is Mortada Mansour’s son, a lawyer and the director of his father’s office.) Mortada Mansour did not want to talk.
Amir cut a fairly different figure from his father. He was all angles: thin, with a sharp haircut and a V-neck shirt. Small models of knight helmets, one sporting a red mohawk, sat on his desk. Although clearly a little uncomfortable talking to the media, he was calm and polite. He began smoking, settled into his chair, and riffed on the awfulness of the Ultras.
Amir refused to accept that his father bears any responsibility for the escalation of the feud. He claimed that Mortada Mansour had provided Ultras with free legal advice in the past when they’d found themselves in trouble but, following the 2011 uprising, Mortada realized that “the Ultras are only interested in violence. He decided that they had to be punished, not tolerated.”
Amir repeatedly returned to the alleged assassination attempt: “This is something we won’t forget.” When challenged on his evidence that the Ultras were behind the alleged attacks, he said that some Ultras wrote, “We are going to end everything” on Facebook. “We know what they meant,” said Amir. He also claimed that cameras close to the club recorded the incident and identified Ultras members.
Amir claimed that other spectators had suffered from the Ultras’ violence, and added that women used to attend matches but had stopped going. “They didn’t want to be in clouds of tear gas as the police defended themselves from attack.”
“If I hit you right now, what would you do?”
The Ultras were one of the few groups to regularly confront the security forces in the streets during Mubarak’s rule. The UWK admit that they clashed with the authorities, but claim they are not football hooligans, engaging in unthinking violence. “If I hit you right now, what would you do?” asked one leading member. “They [the police] started the violence, not us. We don’t like to start violence, it’s only a reaction.”
Ultras groups have fought each other in the past but the academic Shawki El-Zatmah has argued that “a substantial part of the hooliganism and fighting, even when it was among two different Ultras groups, was often aimed at the security forces of the regime and was viewed by the Ultras as a form of ‘safe resistance’ to the Mubarak regime.” El-Zatmah also documented instances where the Ultras used fireworks to cause damage to stadiums to force their clubs to accede to their demands, such as firing an unpopular coach.
The leading UWKs are far from the bald, beer-bellied caricatures of English football hooligans, or the mostly far-right Ultras groups in mainland Europe. UWK leaders are in their early 20s and middle-class — some are slightly nerdy university students. Most have been in the Ultras since its inception. They joke about girls, beer, and smoking hashish, but they also talk about books and travel — they are wealthy enough to travel abroad to watch the team play in regional competitions.
To be an Ultra is fundamentally to be a fanatic. They describe their devotion to Zamalek in the terminology of love and war, loyalty and sacrifice. They are a collective that stresses solidarity. They tend to oppose the commercialization of football, and regard many of the players as mercenaries and the club’s management as corrupt lackeys of politicians. When Egypt’s stadiums were open, Ultras would often avoid paying money to the club by vaulting the turnstiles.
When the Ultras White Knights were formed, Zamalek SC was struggling. The UWK tried to jump-start their team back into life through the sheer force of their passion, expressed through chants, flares, songs, banners, humor, and vitriol.
The leading UWK members tend to be anti-authoritarian, scorning all political parties: “All the people in the government, and all the parties fighting the government, we don’t give a shit about anything of them. They are all shit: The Muslim Brotherhood, or the government, or any of the parties.”
But the beliefs of the rank-and-file membership run the breadth of the political spectrum. When the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military last summer, Ultras were present at both the pro- and anti-Morsi protest camps.
The UWK leaders claim that — as a group — they have no political affiliation. They say that what binds them is their passionate support for Zamalek, and their common values, which they define as a desire for freedom: to be free to attend matches, to chant what they want, to follow their own beliefs. The UWK leaders have a common reply to people who criticize or try to control them: “We don’t give a shit.”
To be an Ultra is also to seek catharsis: to vent the inherent frustrations in being young and Egyptian.
Like Ultras Ahlawy — hard-core supporters of Al Ahly — Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights were formed in 2007 during the dog days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which was over 25 years old and characterized by corruption, inequality, entrenched poverty, police brutality, and an aging, wealthy elite with little regard for young people. Mubarak’s son was being groomed to succeed his father and likely serve another generation more of the same.
“We wanted something to make us one group; to put all our fears and all our problems behind us and just go to the stadium and chant and sing and support the team,” said the UWK.
But many were also waiting for something bigger than their group: a movement to channel the energy and frustration of the youth beyond the stands. “We were waiting for the revolution.”
As the uprising against Mubarak broke out on January 25, 2011, the Ultras — both from Zamalek and from other clubs — were at the forefront of the street protests. When camel- and horse-riding assailants attacked and killed protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011 — what became known as the “Battle of the Camel” — the protesters held the square, in part due to the street-fighting effectiveness of different Ultras groups who battled the regime’s thugs and security forces. Mortada Mansour was later charged — and acquitted — of being one of the orchestrators of the attacks.
Depending on how you rank the labor movement, the Ultras were the second or third largest social movement in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood, argues James M. Dorsey, author of a blog and forthcoming book about football in the Middle East. “The Ultras were key to the toppling of Mubarak and they played a very important role in opposition to military rule following the fall of Mubarak.”
Dorsey echoes the UWK’s claims regarding their violent behavior. “Not only was the violence initiated by the security forces, but there was deep seated animosity already towards what was viewed as a repressive force,” argued Dorsey. “So, in other words, there is a rationale to this violence [by the Ultras].” Unsurprisingly, the Ultras’ lawyer Tarek El-Awady rubbishes the assassination claims. “Mortada Mansour is a man who likes to make propaganda about himself. What he said is false. He says he got shot at by 14 people! He claimed there is a camera that recorded the incident but there is no footage of this. Mortada Mansour has faked it. Nothing happened,” said El-Awady, and then paused. “Except for the bag incident.”
It’s hard to find anyone independent who gives credence to the assassination claims. “There is no real dialogue or mutual understanding, and Mortada Mansour was escalating the situation since he came to power at Zamalek sports club,” said Yasser Thabet, author of several books on Ultras and Egyptian football. “I think there are kind of dirty games between both sides, but I’m not sure it reached the point of assassination.”
Although the feud is partly fueled by the nature of Mansour’s personality and the character of the Ultras, some argue it should also be understood in a wider context of the authorities’ crackdown on dissent.
The state has targeted Islamists, students, liberals, leftists, atheists, migrants, LGBT people, NGOs, publishing houses, and journalists — as well as the Ultras — following Morsi’s ousting on July 3, 2013. Thousands of protesters have been arrested or killed by the security forces.
“If the court was to act on Mansour’s request and ban the Ultras — or even if it doesn’t on a matter of principle — it’s part of a trend,” said Dorsey, “not only in Egypt but across the region, in which protest and opposition to the government are increasingly being equated with terrorism.”
Prominent figures, such as ex–Al Ahly player-turned-TV pundit Ahmed Shobeir, have also called for the Ultras Ahlawy to be banned. But it’s unclear what a ban would mean in practice.
The Ultras are not an organization in a legal sense, says Ahmed Osman, a lawyer with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. They don’t have assets, a headquarters, or any official relationship to the club. “There wouldn’t be any legal repercussions if they were banned.”
Amir Mortada Mansour accepts that the Ultras don’t exist as a legal entity but says this is the problem: “No one is allowed to establish a group, organization, or party without permission, or recognition, under law.” Amir seems to suggest that the ban would give the authorities scope to arrest more members through association.
Yet, the prohibition on attending matches arguably means that all Ultras groups have already effectively been banned in the most basic and painful way.
“That has caused a lot of friction and a fair amount of the incidents you’ve had in the last year, and certainly part of the friction between the Ultras White Knights and Mansour you can trace back to the fact that spectators have been banned,” said Dorsey.
Returning to the Stadiums
Watching an Egyptian league match on TV in a Cairo café can be an eerie experience. The café’s audience erupts when someone scores. On the screen, players reel in celebration, while a hinterland of empty plastic seats stare blankly back at the camera.
Spectators have been banned for much of the time following the 2011 uprising, and there has been a blanket ban on all league matches since the Port Said disaster on February 1, 2012 — the eve of the first anniversary of the Battle of the Camel.
At least 72 people died in the disaster after Al Masry fans attacked Al Ahly supporters in Port Said’s stadium following a match. The police kept the stadium gates closed after the match had ended and reportedly removed barriers separating the fans; they also failed to confiscate weapons and stood aside as the attacks took place.
Ultras Ahlawy members were the main target, and there was widespread speculation that the disaster was engineered by the authorities in order to attack the group and spread fear.
Amir Mortada Mansour claims he wants fans to return to the stadium but that they “shouldn’t harm the club or involve politics in sports.” He said that an empty stadium diminishes the importance of the matches and deprives clubs of essential revenue.
Amir says they have made proposals: that everyone attending matches should be a season-ticket holder and show identity cards, that CCTV should be used to identify hooliganism, and that political banners and chanting should be banned. He says, with some exasperation, that the Ultras have refused these proposals. Amir thinks that fans could initially return to stadiums in small numbers and that clubs could pay for private security to work alongside the police.
The UWK say they reject the police being present at matches, although they would accept some private security, but they are not willing to compromise on their principles and say they will keep causing trouble until their demands are met: the release of imprisoned members, access to the clubhouse, a return to the stadiums without being controlled, and that the cases against them be dropped.
Point of No Return
Recently there has been a period of relative calm, although many Ultras are active as individuals in ongoing student protests. But it is tinder-dry calm, awaiting a spark.
If the Ultras can’t return to the stadiums, and an official ban gives more energy and a legal veneer to the crackdown already underway, Thabet thinks the authorities’ actions could nurture violence, provoking some Ultras into joining more radical or militant groups.
“It would be the point of no return,” said Thabet, referring to a ban, “because this would mean that you are forcing the Ultras to work underground and use secret and hidden tactics.”
At the moment, these are just future projections. Thabet says he hasn’t heard of any Ultras joining domestic terrorist or militant groups, and the UWK leaders say that, although their anger is rising, they would never go to such extremes.
The strength of the Ultras is hard to gauge, and public opinion is mixed in a society infused by football fanaticism. To some extent there is a generational divide; older people are more likely to see Ultras as a rabble, younger people are more likely to express support.
Ultras are regarded as a threat because they are young and unruly collectives; they won’t do as they’re told, they’re angry, and they can fight. Even if their demands are met, many of them are still committed to the idea of revolution. The bind for Mortada Mansour and the authorities is that if a crackdown can trigger dissent, then the stadiums can inculcate it. Dorsey argues that, by insisting on their freedom within stadiums, the Ultras are “staking a claim to a public space, in a country that does not tolerate independent public space.” It is a swift move from dissent in the stands to disorder in the streets.
Yet, the Ultras are facing a dogged opponent in Mortada Mansour, backed by a regime that has proven its determination to stamp out dissent through the unprecedented scale of its death toll. Whatever the outcome of the court cases, the fight will go on.
“We will not give a shit about what they say,” claimed the UWK. “If anyone dies it’s a victory, if anyone goes to jail it’s a victory. And if we go back to the football stadium it’s the biggest victory for us.”