In Egypt, Rival Ultras Meet to Show Common Cause

Cross posted from the New York Times.

Ultras demonstrating outside the prosecutor general's office in Cairo on Feb. 15

Egyptian soccer ultras demonstrating outside the prosecutor general’s office in Cairo on Feb. 15.

CAIRO — Mere months ago, fans of Al Ahly and Zamalek clashed on the streets. On Sunday night they stood side by side, red alongside white, a hand of one often resting in unspoken friendship on the shoulder of another.

Thousands gathered in the shadows of Cairo International Stadium, where both sides play home matches, to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period that began after the Port Said stadium disaster on Feb. 1. At least 74 people were killed when supporters of the home team, El Masry, attacked visiting fans of Al Ahly, Egypt’s biggest club.

The Egyptian Football Association announced Saturday it had canceled the remainder of the domestic league season, which has been suspended since the violence in Port Said.

Hailed by organizers as the first such assembly of competing Ultras groups — the hardcore supporters clubs that back professional teams in Egypt, Italy and elsewhere — the meeting also marked the culmination of more than a month of dialogue between leaders of Al Ahly’s Ultras Ahlawy and Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights.

Conversations about the meeting began days after the incident, when members of White Knights appeared at a mourning ceremony at Al Ahly’s training ground to pay their respects to Ahlawy members who had died. At a protest two weeks later in front of the prosecutor general’s office in Cairo, the flags of the two hated rivals flew together.

On Sunday, speakers representing Ahlawy and White Knights vowed not to return to sporting stadiums until those responsible for the carnage in Port Said are brought to justice. Egypt’s parliament and attorney general are both conducting investigations. Ultras members have voiced skepticism that these will amount to anything more than white-washing of an incident many believe to have been orchestrated by the Egyptian police and the ruling military.

Ahmed, 20, a member of White Knights, said he was hopeful that the show of unity would jolt the authorities to action. “I expect that the government, after hearing what happened tonight, is so afraid,” he said. “So I think they’re going to bring the rights to the people who died in Port Said.”

But he warned, “If nothing happens, it will be a very big problem.” In the days after the fighting in Port Said, Ultras also battled security forces in Cairo and Suez, resulting in more than a dozen more deaths.

On Sunday there were also calls for an end to the fighting between opposing supporters that has dogged Egyptian soccer in recent years. Rani Fouad, a 21-year-old engineering student who has been an Ahlawy member almost since its inception in 2007, said his fellow Ultras were beginning to reject the violent tactics that, he argued, were introduced by hooligan elements within their ranks.

“Years ago, when the violence started between us and Zamalek, I started to say, ‘Why should we fight?’ ” he said. “Everyone should concentrate on his team and being loyal. I didn’t see it right to just think about fighting with others.”

This was not the first time the Ultras groups have joined in common cause. During the revolution last winter, members of Ahlawy and White Knights formed the vanguard of the resistance to the forces of the former president Hosni Mubarak. Once he fell, they soon trained their sights back on one another.

Those in attendance expressed confidence that this latest unity would prove more enduring than the last. Sameh Samir, a filmmaker who joined his friends in Ultras groups at the gathering, pointed to what he described as a crucial difference this time around. “In the revolution, they came together as individuals, but not as groups,” he said. “After Port Said, it’s everyone together.”

Still, he conceded, violence was not likely to disappear entirely from a scene dominated by young people, some barely in their teens.

“Youth don’t necessarily have a mentality of peace,” he said. “But I think it will be individual violence in the future, not group violence.”

The unprecedented scene Sunday should not have been all that remarkable. There is little beyond rooting loyalty that distinguishes Al Ahly and Zamalek fans. The old geographic and social fault lines that used to divide them barely exist anymore. Outside Ultras life, rival fans are sometimes close friends.

But for those here, the experience was hard to wrap their heads around. “It was so, so strange,” Ahmed said afterward. “I felt like I was in a dream.”

On the ride back toward the Metro station, the two sets of fans shared one of the rickety buses ordinarily used to transport them from the stadium after games. Unsurprisingly, on a vehicle packed with teenagers and early twentysomethings, the atmosphere was rowdy. But there was not a whiff of animosity in the air.

Standing in the aisle, Samir glanced at the mélange of competing T-shirts and jerseys, flags and stickers, and quipped, “If this had happened after a game before, the bus would have blown up.”

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