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Demonstrators organized a march Friday to demand justice for former military leaders whom protesters accuse of killing revolutionaries during the 18-month-long transition that followed the 25 January revolution.
The initiative was an attempt to break the political stalemate of the street protests, with activist groups coordinating with the Ultras Ahlawy football fan group to take action to demand justice. But, the good intentions didn’t save the day.
Scuffles erupted shortly between the two groups during the march. Witnesses say the ultras were attempting to silence any chants against President Mohamed Morsy, which provoked many activists who did not see a difference between the military junta and the Muslim Brotherhood regime, which they accuse of granting the former a safe exit.
Wael Eskandar, who wrote his eyewitness account for the online magazine Jadaliyya, said when chants against Morsy turned loud, disgruntled protesters and provoked ultras started to clash, and some women were physically assaulted, allegedly by ultras members. Shortly after, both protesters and ultras pulled out.
“Protesters left with more questions than answers as to what drove the ultras to adopt such a position. Were they convinced that justice could be attained under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood? Were they infiltrated? Were they placated by the court verdict, which sentenced 21 individuals to death for involvement in the Port Said massacre?” Eskandar asked in his account.
The ruling came to shake the relation between the ultras and activists following their cheering to the death sentence verdict given to 21 defendants accused of killing football fans after a match in Port Said last February. Parallel to their cheering, many Port Said residents erupted against the police in days-long violence that claimed more lives, as they believed the regime used their kids as scapegoats to avoid the wrath of Ahly’s ultras.
As Ultras Ahlawy burst into the streets of Cairo to celebrate, they were accused of disregarding real justice and falling into their traditional football rivalries, shoving politics aside.
“This is not true. Our celebration never means that we forgot real justice. Our celebration is due to the fact that justice started to be served,” a leading ultras member, who requested anonymity and will be referred to as Ali, told Egypt Independent following the January verdict.
“We were clear from the first day that Port Said fans are the ones who committed killings with their own hands. We also believe that the police were complicit and incited them, and the military regime engineered the whole massacre. But this does not negate the fact that Port Said fans committed the crime,” Ali explained.
He said Ultras Ahlawy had testified against the defendants who received death sentences in the case.
“We know those who killed our friends by heart and we actually testified against them,” he recounted.
But they will not be deceived, he added, as they await justice against the police officers who were complicit in planning for the massacre.
“Let’s be realistic. We know that we cannot hold the military accountable now because it needs more revolutionary efforts. But we were pressuring to hold both Port Said fans and the police accountable. Our pressure yielded partially, so let’s wait till we see the rest of the ruling,” he added.
The rest of the defendants are yet to hear their fate, which will be decided in a 9 March court session.
Another ultras member, who also prefers not to mention his name due to established ultras traditions, believes that politics played a major rule in misleading the public regarding this case.
“The conspiracy-theory remarks by many politicians misled the Port Said people. It convinced them that the existence of a conspiracy is enough to set them innocent from the crime, which is never true,” the other Ultras Ahlawy member, who will be referred to as Adel, told Egypt Independent.
“The fact that there is real conspiracy does not mean they are innocent. Port Said fans committed the crime with their own hands,” Adel said.
But football enmity aside, the case opened up a gap between ultras and activists, who for long celebrated them as their revolutionary companions and bold front-liners fearlessly standing against the police.
Ali spoke of a certain distrust. He believes that many opposition groups who previously supported Ultras Ahlawy’s demands never wanted real justice, but just wanted the anger of ultras to use it for political reasons.
“Some of the revolutionaries I saw in the court were not happy with the verdict and the joy of the martyrs’ mothers. They wanted the ruling to acquit all defendants so that we get angrier and they can use our anger,” he said.
“Their faces literally turned black when they heard the ruling,” he added. “They never wanted justice.”
The ultras staged a major sit-in last year in front of the Cabinet to demand justice for their killed martyrs and organized many protest. They enjoyed wide support from different political groups.
But the attitude shifted after the court ruling, Ali said.
“[The April 6 Youth Movement] in Port Said is against the ruling. Opposition figure Hamdeen Sabbahi supported and visited us in our Cabinet sit-in last year when he was a presidential hopeful. Now he says the ruling is politicized,” he said.
“Political gains move politicians, but for us, justice, and justice only, will be forever our main drive,” he concluded.
Like him, Adel believes that the ultras will never be used as cards in the ongoing political deadlock.
“We all support the revolution and we protest in Tahrir Square individually. But our collective actions as ultras will only serve our case as ultras, and we will never allow them to be used politically,” he asserted.
Some diagnose this gap as a cultural difference between the loosely organized activists and the more tightly organized ultras.
For founding member of Zamalek Ultras White Knights and author of “The Ultras Book” Mohamed Gamal Beshir, also known as Gemyhood, there are two mindsets at hand — and they can fall into conflict.
“The ultras are governed by their own moving, extremely radical performance,” he said. But activists do not always understand this, he added.
In their Cabinet sit-in in 2011, for example, the ultras declared that women would not be allowed to enter starting after 10 pm. The move infuriated many activists.
“The activists saw this as discrimination and sexism, while the ultras believed that having girls will be a distraction from their specific goal,” Gemyhood said. “The two perspectives are OK in their separate contexts, but show two conflicting cultures. The clash was inevitable.”
Accordingly, saying the ultras were infiltrated or are solely driven by football rivalry because they rejected anti-Morsy chants in the march is a rushed position, he argued, adding that for the ultras, chanting against Morsy was a distraction from the march’s anti-military profile.
It’s the activists’ mistake, he added, that they didn’t explain their position that the opposition to both parties — the military and the Brotherhood — is interconnected.
Samia Jaheen, who attended Friday’s march, attributed the conflict to attempts at hijacking coordination among activists, ultras and other politically engaged groups.
The goal of the march was clear through the Facebook event and the media, she said, and it was to commemorate the martyrs who fell during the military rule, and whose killers, the military commanders, were honored by Morsy.
“The attempt to break our unity [before the march] was huge. It’s as if there was determination to fail the first attempt at coordination between the two groups,” she wrote on her Facebook.
Acquiescing to the flawed notion that the incident marks the dramatic depoliticization of ultras is activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who was at the march’s forefront Friday.
“As long as we insist that people cannot commit mistakes lesser than treason, and as long as we continue to fight over tactical choices as if they where ethical or ideological, we’ll have incidents like these,” he said.
He blamed this insistence for activists’ and protesters’ ongoing problems engaging with the public.
“There is extreme hostility toward those who have specific causes, which allows for ridiculous statements like ultras will fight for their own cause only. That’s why we fail to engage with socioeconomic struggles,” he added.
This piece appears in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.