Egypt’s hardcore football fan clubs, the Ultras, have become a notorious force in Egyptian society. Modeled after their European counterparts, the Ultras began as rambunctious supporters of popular Egyptian football teams, organizing chants and displays at matches to cheer on their side and demonize the opponent.
Many Egyptians came to respect and appreciate the young men after their participation in clashes with security forces in Tahrir Square and during the Mohammed Mahmoud Street clashes in 2011. Many also sympathized with the Ultras Ahlawi after 74 of their members were killed in Egypt’s worst incident of football violence after a politically charged match in Port Said in early 2012.
This surge in the Ultras popularity was, however, tainted by recent violence. The Ultras insist on avenging their martyrs and violently reacted to the sentences handed down in January and March of this year against those accused of involvement in the Port Said deaths.
The Ultras’ impact on Egypt’s political and cultural landscapes has extended beyond the stadium and street clashes to influence the structure of new groups with disparate socio-political leanings.
Inspired by the organizational efficiency and popular appeal of these fan groups, newly formed organizations have styled themselves after the Ultras in an attempt to capitalize on their notoriety. Some, like Ultras Bassem Youssef, Ultras Sponge Pop, and Ultras Salafi, have only appropriated the Ultras name to denote their extreme devotion respectively to the popular comedian, beloved television character, and Islamic social movement.
Others, such as Ultras Nahdawi, have also adopted the aesthetics and tactics of the fan groups to convey their love for a cause. Ultras Nahdawi was formed in April 2012 by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to rally support both for the party’s platform, the Nahda Project, and President Morsi’s presidential campaign last year.
Like the original Ultras, Ultras Nahdawi use high energy, coordinated chants to convey their message. They also produce videos featuring pro-Muslim Brotherhood songs, modeled on older Ultras’ songs. Their shorthand name ‘UN12’ copies the Ultras Ahlawi’s ‘UA07’ formula, abbreviating the name of the group and the year in which it was founded.
The Ultras Nahdawi has also mimicked Ultras-style violence. On April 19, 2013, the group’s members were responsible for much of the violence between protestors and Muslim Brotherhood supporters outside the High Court in downtown Cairo and in nearby Abd al-Mounim Riyyad Square.
The Brotherhood touts the Ultras Nahdawi as an example of its popularity among the youth. The formation of the Ultras Nahdawi is one way the Muslim Brotherhood has and continues to appropriate revolutionary symbols. In their song “The Nahda Isn’t Just Words,” these Ultras use the familiar “bread, freedom, social justice” slogan to assert their guardianship of the Egyptian revolution.
The original Ultras are explicitly anarchist and anti-regime. What does it mean, then, when the ruling power adopts Ultras’ tactics and employs them to further its own interests? This mimicry and appropriation of oppositional culture is a blatant attempt by the government to assert its control and power. By exploiting successful models of organizing, the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to capitalize on current understandings of youth, masculinity, belonging, and violence in Egypt.