This past Sunday, the Egyptian national soccer team won in a match against the Congolese team, confirming their place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It is the first time Egypt has qualified for the competition since 1990. Egyptians jubilantly celebrated the victory, with thousands of fans filling Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo in ways that have not happened in years. Many soccer fans, otherwise known as the “Ultras,” however, were unable to join the celebrations, since over 200 of them have been languishing in prison.
Over the past few months, Egyptian security forces have intensified their ongoing crackdown on the Ultras supporters of soccer teams, Zamalek SC and Al Ahly SC. Last month, according to Mada Masr, 150 Ultras of Al Ahly SC (also known as Ultras Ahlawy) were arrested at the Borg el Arab stadium in Alexandria after many fans were found wearing t-shirts with the number “74.”
The number “74” memorializes the 74 Ultras Ahlawy fans who were killed during the infamous Port Said stadium stampede in February 2012, due to the negligence of security forces. Eyewitness accounts at the time reported that about a dozen armed “fans” from the opposing team charged towards the Ultras Ahlawy as the soccer game ended. As soon as the game finished, the stadium lights went out, and security forces did not open the stadium doors to allow fans to leave, precipitating a stampede. Security forces did not stop the armed groups from attacking and, according to attendees, some fans claimed that police even incited the attack against the Ultras Ahlawy. After the incident, all soccer fans were banned from attending matches . The government never launched a thorough investigation into the Port Said massacre.
After the Ultras were finally allowed to attend soccer matches again, on June 20, 2015, twenty-eight Ultras of Zamalek SC, also known as the Ultras White Knights, were killed outside of the Air Force Stadium in Cairo. When crowds of fans entered through the narrow, fenced security gate that led to the stadium, the police fired teargas to disperse them. A stampede quickly resulted, as police used disproportionate force to get fans to move away from the gate.
Hundreds of the Ultras White Knights were also arrested last month, with 235 scheduled for military prosecution under charges of “belonging to an illegal organization,” and “inciting terrorism.” Since 2011, the Ultras have become increasingly involved in Egyptian politics, including facing security forces head on during both the January 25 uprising and the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes of 2011, to writing and recording their own resistance songs and singing them in marches and stadium bleachers.
Almost immediately after the Egyptian national team’s victory last weekend, the Ultras White Knights tweeted about their joy at the historic win, as well as their commitment to seeking justice for imprisoned fans, in particular an Ultras leader by the name of Mustafa “Tabla,” who could not join the celebrations. As the tweet read: “Egypt will finally advance to the World Cup in Russia for the first time in 25 years. We are all behind Mustafa ‘Tabla,’ who is still detained to the Air Force Stadium case. Tabla wished he could celebrate this moment alongside other fans today. The martyrs of Zamalek and Al Ahly are the ones who most deserve this happiness. The voices of the prisoners reached Borg Al Arab Stadium today. Freedom and soccer for all fans!”
— Ultras White Knights (@White07Knights) October 8, 2017