One panelist discussed the the Ultras, the premiere football fandom in Egypt, and their relation to Egypt’s militarized state. In February of 2012, a riot broke out in the Port Said stadium during an Egyptian Domestic League football match, resulting in 73 deaths and 73 trials. The riot began with El Masry (home) fans storming the field and attacking El Ahly (away) players, causing the players to seek refuge in the changing rooms while police attempted to control the riot. Brute force was used by the police and the fans, and in the wake of the riots, Egypt’s domestic league was shut down for two years (which eventually became indefinite). Strict policing of football stadiums was set in place and football fans across Egypt were robbed of their outlet to the game.
Leading up to the Port Said riot, the Ultras played a key role in organized political advocacy and even in rebellious street fights. The group has an immensely creative and efficient system of organization and powerful group protest that derives from the organization and cheering of their football fandom. The Ultras’ organization, rowdiness, and effective crowd-rallying performances made the Ultras a target of the militarized state. The state feared the Ultras for other reasons as well: the Ultras had a great nationalist spirit to them, and their strive for a state of pleasure and fun threatened the military’s idea of Egyptian culture and practices of the state. So, when the Port Said riot occurred, the state capitalized on the opportunity to shut down football in Egypt and attempt to sever the Ultras. Determined to regain the stadiums as public space, the Ultras passionately joined the riots and protests of the militarized state.
The Ultras offer the idea of the “imagined state” to the revolution; their immense football fandom created an imagined sense of community that connects the fans across Egypt with the management and players of their favorite team in an interactive manner. This ability to imagine an idealized state fuels the revolutionists’ abilities to imagine an improved Egyptian government, with strong and progressive ties between state and civilian.
The Egyptian football league closure resulting from the Port Said riot caused Egyptian football professionals to leave the country and seek other professional leagues to play in. One Egyptian nationalist, Mohammed Elneny, who was a successful Egyptian national player in the U21 division was driven to a Swiss league, where he would go on to win the Swiss Super League with his team three consecutive times. In January of this year, Elneny signed with one of the world’s largest clubs and a major club in the British Premiere League, Arsenal.
Elneny has had a tumultuous journey to success and a $17 million contract with the internationally renowned Arsenal. His resiliency to deal with the Egyptian revolution, having to leave his home country at a young age, and still train to become a successful player is truly astounding. Elneny was able to capitalize on his opportunities, opportunities that hundreds of aspiring Egyptians would answer if not for their governments oppression.