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Egypt's revolutionary soccer ultras: How football fans toppled Mubarak

By James Montague, CNN
  • Al Ahly and Zamalek face each other in the Cairo derby at the city's International Stadium
  • The two teams' ultra groups fought alongside each other during the recent uprising
  • They are now again in opposition following the overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak
  • Both teams are involved in the battle for the Egyptian league title

(CNN) -- "Regime! Be very scared of us
We are coming tonight with intent
The supporters of Al Ahly will fire everything up
God almighty will make us victorious Go, hooligans!"
Chant of the Al Ahly Ultras, before the Egyptian revolution

It was as if a levee had finally broken, and for once there was no retribution. Some 7,000 fans of Al Ahly, Egypt's largest soccer club, gathered for the first match of the Egyptian football season and chanted the names of the regime and its apparatchiks they had fought for the past four years.

"F*** the mother of Hosni Mubarak!" shouted Assad, the leader of Al Ahly's militant ultra group Al Ahlawy, at the police in front of him. Thousands followed suit. "Go f*** your Minister, Habib al Adly!"

This show of dissent would have been ruthlessly cut down a few months ago. But Mubarak and Al Adly -- the former Minister of the Interior and the man formally in charge of Egypt's hated police force -- were now under arrest.

"The police would abuse us every day," Assad said. "Now it's our time." Even so, he didn't want his real name used for fear of arrest.

Al Ahly took on their city rivals Zamalek in Africa's biggest derby football match on Wednesday in a game that divided Cairo between the red of Al Ahly -- the most decorated team in Africa and a club whose identity has always been aligned with the poor, the devout and the nationalistic -- and the white of Zamalek, a side followed by an awkward squad of intellectuals, poets and outsiders.

The police would abuse us every day, now it's our time
--Assad, Al Ahly ultra
  • Al Ahly
  • Cairo (Egypt)
  • Egypt
  • Hosni Mubarak
  • Football

Traditionally it has been one of the most violent derbies in world football, with the match -- which ended in a 2-2 draw -- taking place at the neutral Cairo International Stadium under heavy police guard.

But a few months earlier the "ultras" among both sets of fans stood side by side during Egypt's revolution. This may have been dubbed the "Facebook Revolution," but improbably it was a football revolution too, where organized fan groups, if only for a little while, played a crucial role in bringing down a government.

But today that unity is gone. The Egyptian Premier League was almost cancelled amid fears that football violence between fans would destabilize the country further.

It was decided that the season would continue but the league has been scarred by the upsurge of football violence between the competing ultra groups, as well as the purging of Mubarak supporters from the Egyptian Football Association, including the country's most successful national coach, Hassan Shehata.

His failure to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations -- a tournament the Pharaohs have won a record seven times -- may have been the reason for his sacking, but his support for Mubarak meant few mourned his passing.

"Living under Mubarak was like living under communism in Eastern Europe ... nobody could talk to each other, as they have the potential to organize," explained Assad.

"The whole concept of any independent organization didn't exist, not unions, not political parties. Then we started to organize football ultras ... to them it was the youth, in big numbers -- very smart people -- who could mobilize themselves quickly. They feared us."

Al Ahlawy soon grew into something more violent and anti-authoritarian. Members were arbitrarily beaten and arrested, fans harassed by being strip-searched or humiliated.

Assad himself had been arrested and thrown in jail. Al Ahly's football matches provided a microcosm of the heavy-handedness that the rest of the country felt on a daily basis in Mubarak's Egypt.

"The more they tried to put pressure on us, the more we grew in cult status. The Ministry and the media, they would call us a gang, as violent," said Assad. "It wasn't just supporting a team; you were fighting a system and the country as a whole. We were fighting the police, fighting the government, fighting for our rights ... this was something new, a little bit of a seed that was planted four years later."

The skills that Assad and his Al Ahlawy had honed during four years of fighting the police came in handy when the January 25 revolution, and the "Day of Rage" that took place three days later, saw the confrontation between the authorities turn violent.

There is a war between us and the police
--Ahmed, the Ultra White Knights

"I don't want to say we were solely responsible for bringing down Mubarak!" Assad laughed. "Our role was to make people dream, letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back. This was a police state. Our role started earlier than the revolution. During the revolution, there was the Muslim Brotherhood, the activists and the ultras. That's it."

And what of their hated rivals, Zamalek and their group the Ultras White Knights? Did they join forces on the front line? "For a few hours," spat Assad, as if he had made a pact with the devil. "But I couldn't do it for long."

The Ultras White Knights (UWK) were more magnanimous. One of their leaders, Ahmed, cautiously agreed to meet in Nasr City. He had good reason to be careful.

Earlier this year Zamalek fans had stormed the pitch during an African Champions League match against the Tunisian Club Africain, destroying the goals and attacking the players.

The UWK had been blamed. Now the authorities were arresting its leaders. The three men sitting in Costa Coffee couldn't have looked less like violent football revolutionaries.

Ahmed, a gentle-natured, heavy-set man in his early 20s, was a production manager. Mohammed was a lawyer; Massoud a student. "There is a war between us and the police," said Ahmed.

"We are fighting them in every match. We know them. We know when they run, when we should make them run. We were teaching them (the protesters) how to throw bricks."

"On the Day of Rage (January 28) we made a plan," Mohammed continued. "Every group, 20 each, traveled separately. On our own, it was nothing. But together as a group in the square we were a big power ... 10,000-15,000 people fighting without any fear. The ultras were the leaders of the battle."

The victory didn't come without its cost. Three were killed, according to Ahmed, "one in Suez, one in Alexandria, one in Cairo. And a lot of injuries. One was shot in the stomach."

But would the old rivalry with Al Ahly return?

"During the march we celebrated with each other. We were fighting with Al Ahlawy on the front line," Ahmed recalled. "We are trying to make a peace treaty with Al Ahlawy, because we are fighting in the same direction."