First, we had FIFA officials busted on corruption charges. Now, Egypt is stepping up to do its part in the War on Soccer, with the alarmingly named Cairo Court for Urgent Matters designating hardcore “Ultras” fan clubs as terrorist organizations.
As Al-Monitor portrays them, the Ultras clubs are huge, with about two million young members. They are also “quite rowdy,” prone to such exuberant hijinks as “attacking government buildings, storming the Ahly soccer club and attempting to assassinate the minister of sports.” At any rate, that was the contention of Mortada Mansour, owner of the Zamalek SC soccer team, who filed a lawsuit that resulted in the court’s designation of the Ultras clubs as terrorist groups, effectively outlawing them.
It might seem like overkill to classify enormous soccer fan clubs as terrorist organizations, but Al-Monitor notes that it is within the purview of Egypt’s tough new terror laws because the Ultras do seem to fit the description of an “association, organization, group or gang that practices, aims at or calls for destabilizing public order, endangers society’s well-being or its safety interests or endangers social unity by using violence, power, threats or acts of terrorism to achieve its goals.”
However, critics argue the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, a civil court, did not have jurisdiction to impose the terrorist designation – an opinion the court itself seemed to share at first – and outlawing the Ultras clubs is just a thinly veiled effort by the Sisi regime to crush dissent.
Actually, it might even be a symbolic effort, since skeptical attorney Ahmed Abdelnaby told Al-Monitor he thought the ban on the Ultras was unlikely to be enforced, and club members themselves appear to be greeting the news of their new legal status with apathy.
Ahram Online, on the other hand, suggests the Ultras may have been intimidated into “keeping a low profile” and remaining “conspicuously quiet” for the time being, contenting themselves with making rude gestures at passing police vehicles. The authorities appear to be reducing the risk of riots at soccer games by the simple expedient of preventing large crowds from gathering in the stadiums.
One security expert, former police commander Mahmoud Kotri, warned Ahram Online that treating the fan clubs as terrorist organizations could be counter-productive: “You don’t want to make them enemies of the community for no reason, by putting them on the same side with the Brotherhood. Most of them are young and impulsive, and that ruling could just encourage some to join militants.”
Kotri further warned that heavy-handed bans against dissident organizations run the risk of making the police look “feeble.”
Those Ultras-inspired riots have been serious business, with a recent one leading to 22 fatalities. Furthermore, several members of the current Egyptian government, including Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat, accuse the Ultras of having political ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, agitating for the return of deposed and incarcerated Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi.
Granted, President al-Sisi and his ministers might wrestle with the constant temptation to designate everyone they do not like as a Brotherhood stooge, but the Ultras do not seem to make any secret of their sympathies, with one spokesman saying of Sisi, “We have to cut off this president. He has blood on his hands.” Club leaders generally portray the property damage, injuries, and fatalities at Ultras-involved riots as the work of rogue elements.
The Ultras clubs have been politically active for a long time, all the way back into the Mubarak era. In a profile of the group written after Mubarak’s fall, CNN observed their penchant for foul-language chants, describing themselves as “hooligans” and treating soccer matches as proxy class-war battles. Mortada Mansour’s Zamalek team was “followed by an awkward squad of intellectuals, poets, and outsiders,” while the rival Al Ahly team was seen as representing “the poor, the devout, and the nationalistic.” Fans of both teams were evidently united in their disdain for Mubarak, which Ultras leaders enthusiastically expressed through violent demonstrations.
Interestingly, their demonstrations have been difficult for law enforcement to anticipate because they do not organize through social media; they seem to arrange their activities through the oldest of old-school viral communication: word-of-mouth.