|The Ultras prefer to keep their identities secret, presumably to avoid unwanted police attention [Malika Bilal]|
CAIRO, Egypt – Not much is known about their organisation, but their presence is an accepted fact of Egyptian society. Most of them lack formal military training, or any training at all.
These are the Ultras, a group whose battle, usually reserved for the football stadium, has moved to the front line in the fight between anti-military protesters and government security forces in Egypt.
Often characterised as hooligans, the Ultras have been blamed for violence at football matches and are prone to clashes with police forces.
Even so, the membership in the group is a hard-won badge of honour for the young men gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“It’s a way of life. You don’t just become one. You aren’t converted. You have to be an Ultra from within,” said Ahmed, a Cairo native and Ultra member who only agreed to an interview if his real name and appearance were not revealed.
The Ultras are notoriously media shy, even “anti-media”, according to Ahmed. He said they prefer to keep their identities secret, presumably to avoid unwanted police attention.
Ahmed is perched on the edge of a low stone wall, just to the south of Tahrir Square.
He and his fellow Ultras have pitched a number of tents there for their prolonged sit-in, along with thousands of other protesters demanding an end to military rule in the country.
Like many of the tents in the area, the Ultras’ lodgings are reinforced against the biting November wind with layers of blankets.
Their camp is set apart, however, by hastily sketched graffiti on the tents that proclaims their beliefs for those who know the code.
“A-C-A-B,” Ahmed said, reading aloud the red etchings on the outside of his tent. “All cops are bastards,” he explained.
According to Ahmed, the abbreviation is a motto for Ultras clubs around the world.
The phrase has particular meaning in Egypt, a country in which the police force is viewed with distrust and even outright loathing.
“Police are paid every month to serve us and help us and protect us, not to oppress us,” he said.
“I’m supposed to know when I go to a cop about a threat or harassment that I will get help, but that never used to happen. They should know they are here to serve us.”
It is sentiments such as this that brought hundreds of Ultras to central Cairo on November 19, the day Egyptian riot police entered Tahrir to forcibly disperse a sit-in by relatives of victims killed during the country’s January uprising.
The use of force by the riot police, known as the Central Security Forces (CSF), sparked an angry response from protesters and erupted into nearly a week of deadly clashes.
The Ultras have stood at the forefront of recent clashes with security forces. In many cases, they were armed with rocks, petrol bombs and firecrackers.
“The Ultras are here. I know that because they’re the only ones facing the CSF with force while singing their hymns,” protester Mosa’ab Elshamy wrote on Twitter on the first day of clashes.
It is part of the Ultras code to remain anonymous to non-members. Dressed in a uniform of skinny jeans, neck scarves and hooded sweatshirts pulled tight over their heads, the Ultras in Tahrir could go unnoticed to those unfamiliar with their habits.
As clashes between protesters and police erupted on the side streets of Tahrir Square last week, the Ultras stood together, chanting their team songs and shooting fireworks and other incendiary weapons.
Elshamy, a photographer and activist, was in Tahrir when he noticed the arrival of the football fanatics. They had come to confront a police force armed with rubber bullets and tear gas.
“They stayed there in the square almost through 100 hours of fighting,” Elshamy said. “It’s easy to notice them because of their use of Molotov cocktails, their extreme courage and recklessness, their chants. They became a common sight.”
The Ultras gained recognition during the January uprising that led to the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak.
According to witnesses, their presence was felt most significantly at the forefront of daily street battles. They also banded together to protect neighbourhoods against looting and crime.
“Before the revolution [the Ultras] were confined to stadiums, so people didn’t know much about them,” Elshamy said.
“After the revolution a lot of perspectives changed about them and they became really popular. The were described as those courageous guys.”
The Ultras movement came to Egypt in 2007. Although the group has existed outside the country for decades, its international origin is disputed.
From Italy to Serbia, these football fan clubs are known for their signature colour-coded symbols, taunting chants and fireworks displays at games.
Their antics are designed to show the utmost support for their team and intimidate the opposing side.
Elshamy attributed the Egyptian Ultras’ willingness to confront security forces with their “long history with police”.
That history, said Rabab El-Mahdi, an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, is due in part to what she called “clear class confrontations”.
“Since the Ultras were created, they were always targeted by state security. They are seen as a mob or as hooligans,” El-Mahdi said.
“So they developed skills that none of the middle class was forced to develop. Plus they come from backgrounds where such skills are needed on daily basis just as survival mechanisms.”
She added that as long as Egypt’s security apparatus remained intact, violent confrontations would continue.
“The skills they developed in dealing with police came in very handy and it comes in handy every time there is a direct confrontation,” El-Mahdi said.
Ultras member Ahmed is also careful to explain that he and his “brothers in blood” do not attack first.
“An Ultra doesn’t attack anyone,” Ahmed said. “We’re a watchdog for the truth. Any unfairness that we spot, within the state or anywhere, we have to stand up for what is right.”
“The personality of an Ultra places you at the front line because you are defending a cause“
– Ahmed, an Ultras member
Still, he was steadfast that the Ultras are far from a political group.
“We don’t have any political direction. Whenever we go to a strike or a demonstration, we do it on an individual basis. We don’t announce it. We are just here as humans. As Egyptians,” Ahmed said.
“On Saturday, initially we came individually. But then we found because we have similar beliefs we went straight to the front line and there were our brothers to the left and right.
“The personality of an Ultra places you at the front line because you are defending a cause.”
The responsibility has come with a toll, however. One of the Ultras was killed during the recent clashes, and several others have been wounded.
Still, Ahmed said he will continue to protests for as long as is necessary.
“There is nothing easy in life,” he said, gesturing toward the muddy field where his tent was pitched against the cold wind and the scent of weeks-old rubbish. “We have to suffer and sacrifice until we achieve.”