The soccer riots in Egypt: Ultras, politics, and dispelling the myth of the peaceful revolution

Portions of this article were used in this article here at Socialist Worker.

Massive demonstrations have been spreading across Egypt since Wednesday, condemning the violence that broke out at a soccer match in the Suez city of Port Said that left 75 dead and thousands injured.  Meanwhile, a debate has erupted over the source of the violence.

Many demonstrators have pointed the finger at the ruling military council, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (or SCAF), accusing them of either provoking the soccer violence, or at least allowing it to happen, in order to undermine the revolution and prove the necessity for “law and order.”  Even the conservative U.S.-based magazine Foreign Policy concludes that “the riots in Port Said will likely strengthen the hand of those in the ruling military council who want to crack down hard” on the semi-political soccer fans known as “Ultras,” self-organized soccer fanatics based around various clubs, modeled off similar groups across Europe, who have been active participants in the struggle against Mubarak and military rule.

Several have pointed toward the peculiar circumstances surrounding the violence as evidence of the police and military council’s responsibility or involvement.  Fans from Masry, the home club from Port Said, stormed the pitch to celebrate their team’s unlikely 3-1 victory against Cairo’s visiting team, Ahly, an Egyptian favorite.  Violence erupted when Ultras from the Masry side crossed the field and attacked the fans on the Cairo side.  “We won the game” against Cairo, stated one Masry fan, “why would we attack them?”

The lax security at the game was noticeable.  Representatives and fans from both teams, Ahly, from Cairo, Egypt’s most popular team, and Masry, from Port Said, have condemned the violence and have pointed blame at the local police and security.  Knives and guns were both allowed into the stadium by local police, for example.  While the violence erupted between fans on the pitch, police suited in full riot gear visibly neglected to intervene and protect fans, leading to some speculation that the police allowed the violence to carry on as an act of revenge against the young Ultras, who are notorious for fighting with police.  The governor of Port Said and the head of security, who usually attend large matches, were both absent on Wednesday.

The mainstream media, however, have used this as an opportunity to condemn the plague of “lawlessness” in Egypt that has erupted since the resignation of Mubarak.  Al Jazeera, for example, clumped together sit-ins and protests against military rule with bank robberies as signs of degenerating law-and-order.  One report from AJE reminisced on the “peaceful” Egyptian revolution and its degeneration into the netherworld of political violence, saying:

“Just one week ago Egyptians were marking the one year anniversary of their peaceful revolution that impressed the world. But the past few months have been anything but peaceful. The lingering question: Where did it all go wrong?”

The military dictatorship couldn’t ask for a better soundbite.  The military dictatorship–or the “security forces” as Al Jazeera likes to call them (an Orwellian monicker if there ever was one)–has been cracking down on the ongoing revolutionary struggles since the fall of Mubarak, arresting over 12,000 civilians to stand military trials, murdering dozens, and wounding thousands, in the name of maintaining “peace” and “security.”  Meanwhile they’ve engineered a campaign to denounce the revolutionaries as the primary source of violence, accusing the revolutionaries of wanting nothing but violence and anarchy.  Thoughtless reports like the one from AJE above, play right into the military dictatorships hands.

Claims of mere “hooliganism” as the source of the soccer violence ignore the aforementioned peculiarities of the situation and the political role that soccer and the Ultras have traditionally played in Egypt.

Cairo’s team, al-Ahly, or “the national” in English, was formed in 1907 to organize resistance to British colonialism; their anti-colonialist political tradition continues today, as Ahly’s star player, Mohamed Aboutrika, demonstrated when he famously lifted his jersey in 2008 to reveal a t-shirt reading “Sympathize with Gaza” (pictured).

The Ultras are often made up of poor, unemployed and disenfranchised youth–also known in Egypt as the harafish–who see soccer as an outlet for their rage and frustration.  A slogan commonly associated with the Ultras, who were some of the most frequent victims of police torture and cruelty under Mubarak, is “A.C.A.B.” or “All Cops Are Bastards.”  You can see it painted all over Cairo.  The Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists said in a statement released Thursday in response to the Port Said riots that the Ultras were organized as a reaction to the “greed of 
capitalism over football turning it into a marketplace of advertising” and “rising ticket prices.” (As Super Bowl Sunday approaches maybe we should take a hint from the Ultras — after all, there is a call out to Occupy the Super Bowl.)

The Ultras were at the heart of the revolution last year, and have continued to be since the fall of Mubarak.  Last year the Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah said in an interview with Al Jazeera that “the Ultras have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment” and joked “maybe we should get the Ultras to rule the country.”

Their entrance into the struggle heralded the participation of some of Egypt’s poorest, most marginalized youth.  And also the most militant youth.  According to one Ultra leader, “We are fighting [the police] in every match. We know them…We were teaching  [the protesters] how to throw bricks.”  So when General Tantawi, the ruling General of SCAF, says that “people will be punished” for the soccer violence, or that the responsible parties will be brought to justice, he’s actually talking about punishing the most militant and dedicated fighters in the revolution.

And thus the myth of the “peaceful” Egyptian revolution, so adored by the media and Western liberals, begins to erode.  The entrance of the Ultras into the mainstream media spotlight threatens to expose as false the mythology constructed around the Egyptian revolution–that it was a peaceful, genteel, and patient revolution, led by tech-savvy youth, learned in the ways of Gene Sharp, Mark Zuckerberg and Biz Stone.  The Egyptians weren’t like those troublemakers in Oakland!

Just like the mainstream media won’t talk about the crucial role that strike action and working-class organization played in the revolution, they won’t talk about the messy business of violence and self-defense.  They won’t talk, for example, about burning down police stations, or torching the offices of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.  They won’t talk about protestors picking up and seizing arms from the police to use them to fight back during the Friday of Anger (youtubed).  They also neglect to talk about the 800-some odd protestors murdered by the US-backed Egyptian military during the revolution.

Blogger As’ad Abu Khalil wrote this about the myth of nonviolence in Egypt:

“[Western liberals promote] the notion that Arab people were inspired by Gene Sharp or Martin Luther King and that they so strictly adhered to non-violence. So untrue…People in Tahrir square are still calling for execution of Mubarak and his cronies. Look around the Arab world: where are the non-violent protests? Some protests are non-violent–like in Yemen–but other elements of the opposition in Yemen have (and use) artillery pieces. Arab peoples have decided to try to overthrow their governments, by all means necessary. The notion that there is a firm belief in non-violence is folly, and I am not apologizing about it, because they believe that against the violence of Arab regimes, and Israel and its sponsors, violence against enemies can’t be ruled out…”

Khalil goes on to draw attention to how violence is accepted in cases where there’s a revolution against a government that the US opposes, e.g. Libya.  But when violence is used against a government the US supports, like when Palestinians defend themselves against the Israeli occupation, or in Egypt, the US condemns it and pleads for nonviolence.  “Of course,” Khalil concludes, “the US is only fooling those who don’t follow the news, i.e. Americans.”

The Ultras–and discussion of their role during the revolution–expose the sheer absurdity of the peaceful revolution myth.  As one Ultra said to the Egyptian Independent

“The power of this revolution came from these harafish burning police stations…That was utilized by the political elites who centralized the struggle in Tahrir Square. Without this confrontation, the revolution wouldn’t have been possible…[E]very police station was burnt to the ground because people have been dying inside them for years. There is a veneer of nonviolence but no one saw the battles in Suez and elsewhere — How is it peaceful when people are dying in the streets?”

The story of the peaceful revolutions in the Middle East serve to spin a story about how revolutions work that’s frequently promoted, for example, through the polished story of the US Civil Rights Movement.  One will often hear in high school history classes about Martin Luther King and the “I Have a Dream” speech, but one will almost never hear about Robert F. Williams, for example, president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and advocate of armed self-defense and a staunch critic of nonviolence.  In his book, Negroes With Guns, which he wrote in self-imposed exile in Cuba, Williams defended the right of African-Americans to defend themselves against racist attacks with violent force, arguing that racists “are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity.”

In fact, what is happening to the Egyptian Revolution is similar to the way that the Civil Rights Movement is distorted and then celebrated as the acceptable, respectable wing of the black freedom struggle, while the Black Power Movement is reviled as violent and excessive.  The first phase of the Egyptian Revolution was simplified and distorted as purely and principally nonviolent.  Now that a growing number of the Egyptian people want to overthrow the US-backed military and disrupt the order of Western neoliberalism, they’re being called excessive and violent.

This distortion of history calls to mind Lenin’s opening statement in the State and Revolution:

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.

In the same way that the ruling-class will attempt to defang the life of “great revolutionaries” such as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, the ruling-class will also attempt to do this with history–as they have done with the Civil Rights Movement.  Today, this is being done with the history of the Egyptian Revolution.

The myth of the peaceful Egyptian Revolution validates those who seek to divide and contain our own movement here in the United States. For example, the journalist Tina Dupuy of the blog Crooks and Liars published an article on Alternet decrying the supposed excesses of Occupy Oakland.  In her article, “Why #OWS Needs to Denounce Violent Tactics on Display at Occupy Oakland,” Dupuy ignorantly claims that social movement struggle is a “PR war” and that revolutionaries “welcome police overreaction” since it apparently “helps the cause they’re fighting for.”  She calls on Occupy “to denounce violence and property damage,” and arrogantly recommends, in the most Stalinesque of fashions, that “those using violence…need to be purged” from the movement.  I wonder if Dupuy would have suggested the same thing to the Egyptian revolutionaries?  Or to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement?  Should the Egyptian revolutionaries have “purged” those that burned down police stations, or those that attacked gas pipelines exporting to Israel and Jordan?  Should Martin Luther King have “purged” Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, urban rioters, or the Black Panther Party, for fear that they “marginalized” and “undermined” the movement?  The myth of the peaceful revolution gives credence to such reactionary divisiveness.

This isn’t to make the argument, however, that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” as Mao stated.  It wasn’t a matching of military force and might that won the first phase of the Egyptian revolution–that would be an absurd claim.  Egypt has one of the largest, most well equipped and well trained militaries in the Middle East.  It continues to receive more military aid from the US than any other country in the world, save for Israel.  It would be ridiculous to try to compete with the state in the arena of military violence.

But while the state can put down a small armed insurrection or uprising, capitalist society requires a working-class.  “Capitalist society needs an active, mobile and intelligent proletariat,” argued Trotsky, “it cannot, therefore, bind the proletariat hand and foot for very long.”  Indeed, as Hossam el-Hamalawy said in an interview with Al Jazeera, “Mubarak was toppled not by us necessarily in the square, but by a general strike.”  What toppled Mubarak, in other words, and will eventually topple the military dictatorship, is going to be a force more powerful, and more difficult to repress than violent minority action, i.e. the organized, collective power of the working-class and the oppressed.

For a decade, the revolutionary struggle in Egypt was built on the shop floors, on the university campuses, and even in the soccer stadiums.  But for any revolutionary movement to be successful, it must be defended from repression by any means necessary.  The strikes, occupations, sit-ins and demonstrations can’t be allowed to simply be cleared away.  To allow the revolution to be crushed by not defending it from repression enables the far greater violences of the military, the police and neoliberalism.  As Gigi Ibrahim, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists, put it,

“Many people have the misconception about how ‘peaceful’ is the Egyptian revolution, but i bet you, these people have not been at the front lines of battles. Every time revolutionaries clash with police, the most militant youth are right there resisting and never backing down. Over the past few months, we even got better at it. Tear gas gets thrown, and we throw it right back at the police. This video just gives you a glimpse of what revolution looks like. Revolution = resistance = victory.”

We don’t yet know how the soccer violence last Wednesday erupted.  The military is already using the riots to strengthen itself, by claiming them as evidence of the need for “law-and-order.”  Furthermore, both the SCAF and the corporate mainstream media have begun clumping together revolutionary protest, the soccer riots, and unrelated crimes into a single narrative of unrest. In doing so, they aim to repress the revolutionary struggle against the military dictatorship by justifying their own acts of violent repression, and corralling political activity into legitimate avenues by summoning the false myth of the peaceful Egyptian Revolution, and condemning the excesses of the Ultras.

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3 Responses to The soccer riots in Egypt: Ultras, politics, and dispelling the myth of the peaceful revolution

  1. Aric Miller says:

    This is an awesome article Aaron!

  2. Mark Tucker says:

    There’s an avalanche of information on this discussion board competing for attention. The only reason I read your blog article is because of your shameless self promotion coupled with Aric Miller’s promotion of your article, AND because I’ve actually met you. When confronted with radical new ideas, I lean on the author’s reputation for help in deciding if they’re attention worthy. I think I’m representative of most of the audience here: curious and open minded, but not especially educated on the history of revolutionary struggle. Before Occupy I would not have given the topic of Egyptian revolution my time. You put a face on this issue and helped many of us make the connection between our struggles. Recently a first time guest to our GA, supportive of the movement but ignorant to that connection, questioned why she read in the news that we here in Detroit were in solidarity with Egypt. This struck her as another symptom of a fractured movement taking on too many issues when it shoud be consolidating focus. In that moment I felt simultaneously disappointed in the broader public’s gross ignorance and optimistic that our efforts were bridging the education gap. It’s obvious we have a mountain to climb when it comes to educating newbie protesters (dare I say revolutionaries?) state side.

    Because we’ve met it’s easier for me to digest your “radical” ideas. “Radical” because these ideas become less radical with time and education. I’m not afraid to admit ignorance on issues in the interest of promoting honest dialgue with the goal of educating myself and others. I’m not an expert on the civil rights struggle, but have been doing more independent research for guidance, trying to find parallels between that movement and ours today. Maybe we are romanticizing the myth of a non-violent civil rights movement. I don’t know. Hopefully continued digging will answer that question for me. What I do know is that I’ve been vocal in the Occupy movement. In my attempts to grow the movement with my writing I’ve caught myself romanticizing the Egyptian revolution, and that doesn’t even have the passage of time to blur distinctions. It’s happening now, and already we’re creating a mythical interpretation. I recall one video in particular. It’s a scene of the military in body armor and helmuts charging unprotected, preaceful protesters. They swarm and over-take the civilians, clubbing them unmercifully and even stomping on their defenseless bodies. The scene is horrific. It turns even more ghastly when one officer is seen producing a handgun, used to aim and shoot at protesters out of frame running away in fear. When one watches further, the tide turns, with protesters hurling rocks in self defense. I showed this video to my family at Thanksgiving. My intent was to educate them and gain their continued support for the occupy movement that originated there. But what’s interesting about this example is that it supports your theory of revolutionary myth creation. In this one video we see defenseless, peaceful protesters turning to rock throwing en masse. When referencing this evidence, I was quick to exemplify the non-violent beginning and gloss over or completely ignore the transition to violent self defense.

    I view these issues from the perspective of photojournalist and media coordinator for Occupy Detroit and Occupy Our Homes (OOH). In my opinion, we must entice middle America if we hope to grow the movement and achieve real change. It’s a giant leap of consciousness for the average apathetic American to go from watching Monday night football to marching in the streets protesting an unjust, unsustainable capitalist system. I know you and some others in Occupy Detroit to be students of Marx, but many of us are not, or were not until recently. I did not question the wisdom of capitalism until Occupy, and I’m the radical liberal in my family. Romanticizing the myth of non-violent revolution may be a gross distortion of facts, but it builds bridges towards future particapation. The myth is attractive, like the first free sample of a new drug is attractive. Call me an evil drug dealing propoganda minister, but it’s easier to gain populace support when the initial call to action is non-violent.

    This movement grew to combat the corruption, lies and distortions of the establishment. I will not commit myself to rebuilding that tired system. We stand on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others. Maybe Malcolm X was right to defend the use of violence. The fact cannot be denied that many are introduced to Malcolm X only through MLK’s non-violent reputation.

    • Aaron Ptkf says:

      Word. What do you mean when you say, “we must entice middle America if we hope to grow the movement and achieve real change”?

      As far as using attractive myths to “gain populace support” I think Carl Sagan might’ve said it best, “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” It’s unprincipled to try to entice people’s support by lying to them, or by knowledgeably perpetuating lies. In fact we should be doing the opposite, e.g., educating people, exposing ruling-class myths about how change is made, etc.

      As far as violence goes, I think we can learn from the Egyptians. In a letter from revolutionaries in the square to Occupy Wall Street, some Egyptians offered this lesson:

      “Do not confuse the tactics that we used when we shouted “peaceful” with fetishiz­ing non­vi­o­lence; if the state had given up imme­di­ately we would have been overjoyed, but as they sought to abuse us, beat us, kill us, we knew that there was no other option than to fight back.”

      By lying or perpetuating the myth that revolutions can be nonviolent, or peaceful, we’re setting ourselves up for splits and fracture. So maybe we entice some support and participation by telling people we’re principally nonviolent, but then when we’re faced down with phalanxes of riot police armed with clubs, tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray, just as we need the most unity, our movement splits over the matter of self-defense. Just at the moment where we need the most unity and strength, we become fractured and weak, and strengthen our opposition. The support we enticed in the first instance was false, in other words. It was based on a lie and a deception.

      It’s far better to win over that support honestly, thru, for example, showing people that we have their backs and that we’re a movement grounded in their real interests and focused on unseating our common opposition–the 1%. In the course of that struggle we’re mostly nonviolent — because our strategy recognizes our mass, our size and our unity and ability to disrupt the source of the 1%’s power, i.e. power over production.

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