Egypt's Ultras have shown military rule the red card
CAIRO // First it was pro-democracy protesters, then it was minority Christians, then it was women.
The list of those who oppose Egypt's ruling generals has steadily grown since they took over power from Hosni Mubarak a year ago. The latest to join the list are the avid football fans known as the Ultras.
Generally viewed as hooligans, the Ultras initially entered the political fray when tens of thousands of its members joined the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak in February last year. They have since been an integral part of the protest movement in Egypt, giving it much needed street muscle as the fight for Egypt's future intensifies ahead of the promised July 1 deadline for the transfer of power back to a civilian administration.
The Ultras could pose a serious challenge to the generals' hold on power and further erode their popularity, already hurting by the loss of support among many women, minority Christians and the country's youth.
In October, 27 people, mostly Christians, were killed by troops during a protest outside the state television headquarters in Cairo. Video clips posted on social networks showed army vehicles running over protesters. In December, army troops were captured on camera again, this time beating and stomping on women protesters, including one who was stripped half-naked.
The two incidents caused an uproar among Christians, who account for about 10 per cent of Egypt's 85 million people, and women, and led to charges that the generals were no better than Mubarak.
The fury added to an already growing resentment of the generals by protesters and activists credited for engineering Mubarak's removal. They accuse the military of torturing detainees, hauling at least 12,000 civilians, many of them protesters, before military tribunals for trial since Mubarak was toppled and bungling the transition in a way that allowed Islamists to sweep parliamentary elections.
The Ultras are credited with playing a key role defending protesters in Tahrir Square, first against riot police and later against Mubarak loyalists who charged the square on horses and camels on February 2 last year, killing and wounding many. Acting in an individual capacity, rather then as members of the Ultras, they again fought police and troops in November and December in deadly clashes in Cairo.
But the deaths in a football riot on February 1 of 74 people - mostly Ultras who supported the Cairo club Al Ahly - have unleashed such fury in the movement's ranks that many expect the Ultras to turn out in even greater numbers in future street protests.
Al Ahly, Egypt's most popular team, played the home team Al Masry, from Port Said, in a league game. Al Masry won 3-1.
The Ultras supporting Al Ahly claim that police stood by and allowed Al Masry's home fans to prey on them, backing up their claim with video clips posted on the internet.
The preliminary findings of a probe by a parliamentary committee blamed fans, police inaction and the football federation for the riot, one of Egypt's worst.
But Al Ahly's Ultras have a different take on the events. They claim that fellow members were punished by the police in Port Said for their high-profile involvement in last year's Tahrir Square protests and subsequent anti-government demonstrations.
The issue, however, is that politics has not changed the movement's origins as a group of young men willing to engage in violence whether the enemy is the police, army troops or rival fans.
Already, Al Ahly's Ultras speak of revenge killings against Al Masry's fans and possibly the police.
Last Wednesday, thousands of them marched to the offices of the country's top prosecutor to demand retribution, waving their hallmark giant flags and chanting slogans against military rule and the police.
The Ultras in Egypt surfaced on the scene as recently as 2007. In many ways, they are an extension of like-minded groups in southern Europe, particularly Italy. In Egypt, they attracted followers from among the millions of disaffected youths who found satisfaction in the camaraderie and the defiance of authority represented by police, the most hated of all Mubarak-era institutions.
Being an Ultra also gave them a sense of belonging to a large community that operated outside their own suffocating confines of poverty and disenfranchisement. The Ultra community provides them with a world filled with passion for the team of their choice, chanting lyrics that yearn for freedom and, spicing their own culture, ridiculing police officers as dimwits and the regime as stupid.
Their hostility towards the police carried a price.
Under Mubarak, many were detained, tortured and intimidated by the police. Much to their dismay, their fireworks and light flares were taken away from them at the gates of stadiums across Egypt. Sports commentators, many of them loyal to the Mubarak regime, had nothing but contempt for them. But the players loved them for their passion and, more importantly, that they cheered them the entire 90 minutes regardless of the score.
"Hey government, tomorrow you will be cleansed by the people's hands. Hey stupid regime, when will you understand that what I demand is freedom, freedom, freedom?" goes one Ultra chant.