‘The Ultras Book’: Ethnography of an unusual crowd

‘The Ultras Book’: Ethnography of an unusual crowd

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Thu, 02/02/2012 - 15:23

The violent clashes on Wednesday after a football game between the Ahly and Masry teams in Port Said have brought Egyptian ultras back into the spotlight. Are they really the aggressive and extremist groups of young men that the media makes them seem? And is the animosity between hardcore football fans and Central Security Forces so strong as to entice the latter to allow the violent clashes that left 71 dead and hundreds injured last night, as many seem to believe?

While these questions still seem all up in the air, renowned blogger and Twitter guru Mohamed Gamal Beshir (who tweets as "Gemyhood"), author of “The Ultras Book,” believes that the violence was not surprising due to animosity between the fans of both teams; but whereas a football game might turn into a disaster, the police and military forces securing the game could have helped prevent it, as he tweeted last night.

To get a better understanding of the ultras phenomenon in Egypt, Beshir’s book is a must read. Based on years of research, “The Ultras Book” was first published by Dar Dawn in November 2011, and in less than three months, the book became popular among fans and those curious about the rise of the ultras, particularly because of their role in the 25 January revolution. So far, Beshir’s text has been reprinted three times.

The ultras specialist begins his book with a methodical psychoanalysis of the individuality of an ultra. He writes in his prelude: “Your eyes cannot miss an ultra, whether inside or outside the stadium. By nature, he is proud, aware of his importance among the rest of his people who respect him for his capabilities. He walks with his head up high…doesn’t talk much…and never befriends fans of other football teams.”

Beshir goes on describing an ultra as a creative beast, almost haunted with the spirit of football; an ultra knows how to work in a group; he is the embodiment of manhood and cooperation. He doesn’t seek personal fame, rather he works in the background to provide light and energy for the rest of his group and to bring glory to his beloved team.

He then moves on to describe the various types of ultras from the "public resultants," who cheer for teams based on the score, and perceive their cheering as their weapon against the world, to the "loyals," whose love for their team is unconditional, to the "classical fan club," put together by a football team’s management to give legitimacy to the board of directors and act as a supportive yet controlled fanbase for the team.

But what is most interesting in “The Ultras Book” is how Beshir traces the rise of the phenomenon. The ultras, Beshir argues, originated in Italy and spread throughout Europe. In the Middle East, they sprouted in Libya in 1989. They were called the “The Ultras Dragon,” and were swiftly suppressed by the fallen Qadhafi regime.

Egyptian football fans followed suit shortly, establishing the Ahly Lovers Union in 1996. The Ahly football team, with their signature red jerseys and white shorts, are the most popular football team in Egypt. In 2005, the Ahly Fan Club was also formed. Many from those groups attended Wednesday's football game in support of their team.

“The ultras, as a group, were formed in Egypt relatively late,” Beshir explained in an interview with Egypt Independent earlier this week, adding that knowledge of the ultras arrived to Egypt mainly through the internet and news about Tunisian ultras groups. It was never easy for the Egyptian football fans as the movement faced much scrutiny and repeated security crackdowns.

In 2009, before a game between the Ahly and Zamalek teams, a wave of detentions took place, targeting the ultras of both teams, as Zamalek's Ultras White Nights were preparing a cheering entrance in support of Palestine and denouncing Israel's siege on Gaza. Most of the detained young men were released the day after the game. But this incident was the beginning of animosity between the ultras and police forces.

The star of the ultras shined high during the 25 January revolution, changing the image of the group. Beshir writes: “On 22 January, a YouTube video appeared reassuring protesters that an Egyptian faction, capable of protecting them, would appear on the streets of Cairo.”

When the revolution broke out, especially during last year's Battle of the Camel, whose first anniversary happens to be today, protesters realized that the ultras were the most organized fighters alongside the Muslim Brotherhood youth. Their highly organized nature makes them a difficult opponent on the battlefield, argues Beshir; and the old animosity between the ultras and Central Security Forces served as fuel for escalating the clashes in the early days of the revolution.

But the ultras have been also playing an important role in mass protests since Mubarak stepped down. During times of “peace,” knowledge that “the ultras are here” changes the vibe of any demonstration or sit-in because they are numerous, organized and simply fun to have around. They can easily transform any small demonstration into a big, loud and annoying scene that the authorities must take notice of. Hence, protesters like their presence.

As a group, the ultras reflect the characteristics of individual members. They are extremely proud, loyal, devoted to their team(s) and country, unorthodox, organized, fearless and aggressive when their teams or country are under attack or criticism. Their dissidence against the oppressive regime also translated artistically in the form of chants like “Ya ghorab ya Me’ashesh” (Oh...Nesting Crow) and “Mesh Nasyeen al-Tahrir” (We didn't forget Tahrir Square) during football games and in graffiti they made around the city.

They aren’t necessarily a politicized group, though, Beshir told Egypt Independent. “In France, the ultras are extremely politicized; there are the left and right wing ultras. In Croatia and Serbia they fought the war, but the situation in Egypt is different,” explains Beshir.

According to the author, the ultras joined the demonstrations separately and headed to the streets because of their friends. They gained more popularity after other influential groups left the streets, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has seemingly joined forces with the ruling military council after the parliamentary elections, and the April 6 Movement, whose presence is scattered.

For those trying to grasp recent events, “The Ultras Book” offers a condensed, analytical study of ultras, reflecting on the social, political and emotional aspects of the group. It is not an easy read, however, due to Beshir's rough writing style.

Overall, the book is a highly informative analysis of this new and highly influential segment of society that few know much about. It is the result of years of study and is definitely a must read.