Sports and activism traditionally do not go hand in hand, but with football clubs in this country taking action on the ground, a new form of protest may be forming.
At first, the idea of football fans playing a large role in a protest may seem surprising, but what other civilians have more experience dealing with and dealing out organised chaos on a daily basis? The most influential club has been Al-Ahly, which boasts support of 50 million people in a country with a population of over 80 million.
The club says that it is not political, but from its formation it has been the club with the most politically engaged supporters in Egypt. For example, in 2008 player Mohamed Aboutrika was allowed to play while wearing a t-shirt that said, “Sympathize with Gaza.” Another reason it is not entirely surprising football clubs have had such an impact on the protests is that, as soccer writer James Dorsey wrote, in Egypt and many other Arab countries, Islam and football are the two main channels through which upset or discontented citizens can express their emotions.
For this reason, the Egyptian Soccer Federation suspended all league games throughout the country in an effort to keep the clubs from meeting and adding to the riots. However, even without the games, Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah told Al Jazeera, the “ultras” (the most militant fan clubs) have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground.
With the entry of sports clubs into the struggle comes the entry also of the poor, disenfranchised and young people of Egypt, who use football as an outlet. The effect the sports fans have had on the protest can be seen in Libya and Algeria, where matches there were also banned for the foreseeable future. Governmental sources have said that this was done to “head off the mere possibility that Egypt’s demonstrations could spill over the border.”
The protest by the football clubs was far from unorganised, and the protesters assigned tasks to various groups, such as collection of trash, and masking tape was worn with roles written on it like “Medic” or “Media Contact.” The Egyptian police have asserted in the past that the ranks of the ultras are filled with criminals and terrorists, and while this may or may not be true, it is definitely true that the game of soccer in Egypt has long been entwined in politics.
“There is no competition in politics, so competition moved to the soccer pitch. We do what we have to do against the rules and regulations when we think they are wrong,” an El Ahly ultra said last year after his group overran a police barricade that was trying to prevent the group from bringing flares, fireworks and banners into the stadium. These football clubs are proving that wherever people are passionate and driven, they will move to bring about change and revolution, and sometimes the biggest influences come from unexpected places.