Fire leaps out of the vat of fry oil Hatem uses to make falafel at his small restaurant. Usually, this is an accident and an occupational hazard that occurs when water makes contact with the hot oil. But this time, it’s intentional. Hatem is contributing to the pyrotechnics of the Ahly ultras who have been setting off fireworks, chanting and singing during their four-day-long sit-in across from his small restaurant near the barricades outside Parliament.
“They have an infectious passion while they chant,” Hatem says. “I also support their cause.”
While many of the protesters don Ahly football club paraphernalia, they are not outside Parliament to cheer for their team. They are demanding justice for the 74 of their own that were killed after a football match in Port Said between Ahly and the home team Masry on 1 February.
On the narrow strip of pavement in the middle of the two-lane street, around 50 tents are set up. Small cardboard cut-outs mark some tents, named after either the area or ultras chapter they represent, such as “Villa Ultras Shubra” or “Villa Ultras Imbaba,” or after the name of one of their fallen, “Villa Mohamed al-Ghandour, the martyr.”
The air around the sit-in is tense as a palpable anger still runs through many of the fans and those who have come to support them, around 2,000 in total, most of them teenagers. Quiet resolve and organization mixes with youthful exuberance. Just like at football matches, there is an organized and impassioned mass that can direct its energy, but also somehow always seems to be on the brink of a chaotic eruption.
The group leaders, known as Capos, have administrative control of the ultras’ activities on and off the pitch, but the ultras thrive on a more organic form of managing their affairs.
“We are all self-organized. Anyone can lead a demonstration. Everyone is here because he wants to be here,” says Mohamed Ahmed, a 21-year-old engineering student. Ahmed tells of tales heard often in ultra tents, about how security forces retreated instead of saving them while Masry fans and hired thugs attacked them with melee weapons and caused many to fall from the stadium roof.
Despite the ultras’ participation in the revolution, they’ll admit that the aim of their group is not political.
“The purpose of our group is to support our team ... but for now none of this is about football,” he says. Nonetheless, Ahmed and many others were pleased when the Ahly club objected to the Egyptian Football Association’s decision to ban Masry for two seasons.
“This sit-in was supposed to be in front of the football association. Then we decided to direct our voices to Parliament as our representatives and call for retribution through them,” Ahmed says.
Many demonstrators in the sit-in are there for much more personal reasons, and the ultras are their conduit through which they can express their anger and dissatisfaction. Their decision to take matters into their own hands is not new, as they have been present as a force in the revolution since 28 January 2011.
After Port Said, however, one anecdote from the massacre especially resonates with many and reinforces their belief that they must get justice themselves. When Ahly fans reportedly pleaded to the Port Said police for help, the officers responded, “Don’t you say you protected the revolution, protect yourselves now,” quotes Ali, a 20-year-old student.
Many ultras claim that their role in the revolution and anti-police chants in stadiums caused police to shirk from protecting them on 1 February. However, it is also their role in the revolution that is making some feel that their sit-in is a continuation of the revolution, as well as a call for justice.
“The ultras’ role throughout the revolution has been to inject fervor and passion into everyone around them. During demonstrations, we’d see people joining the marches when they noticed the ultras were there,” says Fareed Mohamed, a 23-year-old furniture salesman from Mahalla.
An activist with the Free Mahalla Youth back in his hometown, an hour and a half outside of Cairo, Mohamed travels to spend his days with the ultras. For him, it’s also a way to express his dissatisfaction with the country’s transition process.
“Besides justice for all the martyrs since 25 January 2011, we are now seeing the farce of the constituent assembly, and have a Parliament that is not representing the revolution’s aspirations,” he says.
The sit-in alternates between lulls, when some sleep, discuss, organize, joke around or entertain guests, and outbursts of impassioned reverie, when everyone chants and jumps around. Some have the lyrics to the chants printed on pages in their pockets. Most have them memorized. They resemble football chants, but instead of talking about scoring goals and prowess on the field, they speak of a moment when their childhood hobby turned deadly.
The group’s main activity during the sit-in — singing and chanting — is very similar to their function in the stadium and embodied in an English banner above the protest: “We will never stop singing.”
“In the stadium, we are all singing together just to create an atmosphere for the game. Here we are chanting to make our voices heard,” Ali says. His voice is already half gone from three days of chanting. He sleeps in his ultra chapter tent and always carries a backpack with books for the university lectures he attends in the mornings.
Ali and Mohamed broke the ultra’s “anti-media” rule to talk to Egypt Independent. It is but one of the sit-in’s many-policies. Other rules include not accepting food from outsiders to the sit-in and not joking around out of respect for the martyrs. Given the ultras main demographic, young men aged 15–25, that rule tends to be disregarded.
Though they refused to provide their real last names, the ultras explained that names were not important among them. Ali did know the real name of one of his friends from the ultras until he read his obituary.
“I was used to calling Mahmoud Mostafa ‘Karika.’ We deal in nicknames,” he says. Mostafa, an engineering student as well, was killed by live ammunition, ostensibly from military police, during the December protests in front of the cabinet.
At one point during the evening, a man on a loud speaker calls out, reminding everyone of another rule of the sit-in: “We said no women here after 8 pm. Call us backwards if you want, but that is the rule; we cannot have women spending the night.” He later extends the time to 9 pm. Well-wishers and fellow revolutionaries are present in abundance throughout the day, including ultras from Ahly’s rivals on the pitch, the Zamalek football club’s White Knights.
Though they used to oppose each other, ultras of the two teams are friends for now, driving home the point that this is no longer really about football.
Most of the ultras do not know if their sit-in will result in an escalation. They are waiting to see the reaction of those in power, and see if they are being taken seriously first. They also don’t seem to mind the possibility of escalation. Many see it is a natural outcome if they are completely ignored.