How Al Ahly and Zamalek buried enmity to topple Hosni Murbarak
Al Ahlawy and the UWK, the renowned fans of Al Ahly and Zamalek, talk about temporarily burying the hatchet to help bring down a government and battles with the police in post-Mubarak Egypt. Words and pictures by James Montague
In the end, the revolutionaries were televised. It was 61 days since the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the 7,000 supporters of Al Ahly who crowded in to one end of Cairo's Military Stadium for the restart of the Egyptian football league were finally able to gloat in front of the people who had made their lives hell for the past four years.
Hundreds of police officers dressed head to foot in black riot gear stood looking at the crowd as the men and boys, led by the Al Ahlawy ultras group, gleefully reminded them and their former paymasters of their position in the new post-revolutionary Egypt. Around the group revolutionary flags had been hung: from Tunisia, Libya and Palestine. In the middle of the crowd Assad, the leader of Al Ahlawy, led the charge.
He shouted insults at Mubarak and Habib al Adly, the former interior minister, with thousands following suit. This show of dissent would have been ruthlessly cut down a few months previously. But now Mubarak was under arrest in a hospital bed near the Red Sea, and al Adly now languished, along with Mubarak's sons, the former prime minister and other members of the country's elite, in the same jail he would send the former regime's political prisoners.
"Can you imagine? What must they all must be saying to each other," Assad shouted over the deafening sound of abuse. "You could write a film about it. The police would abuse us every day. Now it's our time."
Welcome to the new Egypt. The world stood transfixed as the Egyptians deposed their president after 30 years of stifling repression. Hundreds of thousands assembled daily at Tahrir Square and fought pitched battles to win themselves a shot at freedom.
But there was one story, that first emerged in the Arab press, that helped explain how a country where civil society had been so sanitised, and any opposition so ruthlessly crushed, could rise up against one of the world's largest police states. This may have been dubbed the "Facebook Revolution", but improbably this was a football revolution, too, where organised fan groups, the ultras of Cairo's two biggest teams - Ahly and Zamalek - buried their traditional enmity, if only for a little while, to play a crucial role in bringing down a government.
The Egyptian Premier League was almost cancelled amid fears that football violence would destabilise the country. Instead it would restart with a match in front of the television cameras, with Ahly taking on Ittihad al Shorta - the Police Union.
The abuse reverberated around the stadium, completely empty except for Ahly's sold-out away end, as Al Ahlawy celebrated their first league match in post-revolutionary Egypt. No one had noticed that, five minutes previously, Ahly had already scored.
Assad picked me up outside the KFC on Tahrir Square. He set up Al Ahlawy four years ago, but the organisation would grow to symbolise more than their love of their team as the ultras fought almost weekly battles with the police.
"Living under Mubarak was like living under communism in eastern Europe … nobody could talk to each other who might have the potential to organise," said Assad, an urbane professional in his mid-20s. "The whole concept of any independent organisation didn't exist, not unions, not political parties. Nothing was organised. And then we started to organise football ultras.
"It was just sport then. But to them it was the youth, in big numbers - very smart people - who could mobilise themselves quickly. They feared us."
Al Ahlawy soon grew into something more violent and anti-authoritarian. Members were arbitrarily beaten and arrested. Fans were harassed by being strip searched. Assad himself had been arrested and thrown in jail.
Ahly's matches provided a microcosm of the heavy-handedness that the rest of the country felt on a daily basis in Mubarak's Egypt. But unlike the activists and the other opposition groups that had been quickly neutered, the ultras fought back.
"The more they tried to put pressure on us, the more we grew in cult status. The ministry and the media, they would call us a gang, as violent," Assad said as we neared the ground. "It wasn't just supporting a team, you were fighting a system and the country as a whole. We were fighting the police, fighting the government, fighting for our rights … The police did what they wanted.
"The government did what they want. And the ultras taught us to speak our mind. This was something new, a little bit of a seed that was planted four years later."
As much as the match was a celebration for Al Ahlawy, it was also the first large public outing for the police. After trying to put down the revolution with tear gas, rubber bullets and, finally, live ammunition, the police left their posts and melted into the population.
Now they had returned, chastened, politely asking for tickets and meekly asking the supporters to go through the turnstyles. Before, Assad said, a swing of the club would have sufficed.
The skills that Assad and Al Ahlawy had honed during four years of fighting the police came in handy when the January 25 revolution, and the "Day of Rage" that took place three days later, saw the confrontation between the authorities - who had decades of experience quashing dissent - and a wholly unprepared public turn increasingly violent.
"I don't want to say we were solely responsible for bringing down Mubarak," Assad said with a laugh. "But our role was to make people dream, letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back, not just run away. This was a police state.
"Our role started earlier than the revolution. During the revolution, there was the Muslim Brotherhood, the activists and the ultras. That's it."
The chants turned more political as the football on the pitch became secondary, the police even turning the floodlights off to move them on after the final whistle.
Later, we met in the bar on a road near Tahrir Square. The leaders of Al Ahlawy sat around, discussing the day the revolution began.
"After three or four days, you can't really feel the tear gas as much," said Mohammed, one of Al Ahlawy's lieutenants. "But we had been in contact with other ultra groups from Tunisia who had been involved in the protest there. They told us to dab Pepsi under our eyes. It worked."
And what of their hated rivals, Zamalek and their group the Ultras White Knights, who Al Ahlawy would fight when they were not fighting the police? Did they join forces on the front line? "For a few hours," Assad said with distaste, as if he had made a pact with the devil. "But I couldn't do it for long."
The match and the day had finished peacefully, the police and Al Ahlway passing their first test in the new Egypt. Fittingly, it ended Al Ahly 2, the Police 1.
The Ultras White Knights (UWK) had been in hiding, but agreed to meet in Nasr City, in secret. They had good reason to be careful. The day before four of their 15 leaders had been arrested, along with 18 of their members. Two days had passed since Ahly beat the Police team but the UWK had bigger problems to deal with than the fact that Ahly had cut Zamalek's lead at the top of the table to three points. Earlier in the month, Zamalek fans had stormed the pitch during an African Champions League match against the Tunisian side Club African, destroying the goals and attacking the players.
The interim military government considered cancelling the league, until the clubs pointed out that most would go bankrupt. The UWK had been blamed for the violence, and now the authorities were purging their ranks.
The three men sitting in the coffee shop could not have looked less like violent football revolutionaries.
Amir (not his real name), a gentle-natured, heavy-set man in his early 20s, was a production manager. Mohammed was a lawyer; Massoud a student. But they, along with the rest of the UWK leadership, were being hunted down by the authorities.
"We have suspended our activities," said Amir, who suggested, like many White Knights, that the pitch invasion was led not by them but by those seeking to discredit them. "It is only temporary, we will return … [The police] want to be in control again. It is some kind of propaganda for them. They want to control us."
The day before Zamalek had played their first league match in post-revolution Egypt against Haras el Hodood, also at the Cairo Military Stadium. Zamalek won 2-1. But unlike Al Ahlawy's show of unity and force against the Police team, the UWK were nowhere to be seen. The arrests had forced the leaders underground, and without them, the fans had begun fighting among themselves.
The crowd was watched by nearly 2,000 armed police, some with machine guns, others with dogs. It was a far cry from the unity that had seen the UWK come to prominence on the front line of the protests.
The New York Times noted that the ultras had been part of the group that stormed, and then torched, the headquarters of Mubarak's despised National Democratic Party. At the "Battle of the Camels" - when Mubarak supporters mounted on camels and, armed with machetes, stormed Tahrir Square - the UWK used their experience of dealing with the police to stop and then detain the riders.
"There is a war between us and the police," Amir said. "We are fighting them in every match. We know them. We know when they run, when we should make them run. We were teaching [the protesters] how to throw bricks, hit-and-run tactics. At the beginning of the Battle of the Camels people were afraid but we got up and attacked the riders."
"On the Day of Rage we made a plan," Mohammed said. "Every group, 20 each, travelled separately. On our own, it was nothing. But together as a group in the square we were a big power, 10,000, 15,000 people fighting without any fear. The ultras were the leaders of the battle."
Just then Mohammed's phone rang. It was one of the UWK's leaders. The army had just raided his home. He had narrowly avoided arrest and was now on the run. It was time for the interview to end.
A last question: would the old rivalry with Ahly return?
"During the march we celebrated with each other. We were fighting with Al Ahlawy on the front line," Amir said. "We are trying to make a peace treaty with Al Ahlawy, because we are fighting in the same direction … You've just heard. The police are chasing our leaders."
The struggle for Egypt's political future will continue, well after the planned presidential election in September. By then, Zamalek may well be champions, the first time they would have broken Ahly's monopoly on the title over the past six years.
"We will go back to Tahrir Square," Amir said. "We will celebrate our revolution, celebrate our victory, and celebrate our championship."
If that happens, Cairean fraternity will be in short supply.
Updated: April 23, 2011 04:00 AM