‘Ultras’ fuel Egypt’s campus protests
Repression of students’ dissent is uniting ultras groups and student activists from across the spectrum.
Protests continued on university campuses across Egypt following the court verdict that cleared ousted President Hosni Mubarak of charges of killing protesters during the January 25 uprising.
The protesters comprise a broad mix of Islamists, liberals, leftists, independents and other non-affiliated students. The scale of protests prompted state-owned news website Al-Ahram to describe it as Egypt witnessing “a university uprising”.
But it was one group of activists that has given a sharper edge to many of the ongoing protests on university campuses across Egypt since the new academic year began on October 11: Ultras Nahdawy.
Ultras are generally known as hard-core football fans, but “Nahdawy” activists are not linked to any team. Most of their original members came from ultras groups supporting Cairo sporting clubs, al-Ahly Club and Zamalek Club.
According to its spokesperson, they formed a new ultras movement during the 2012 presidential campaign to support the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, who later won the election. “We were the first political ultras in Egypt,” the Nahdawy’s spokesperson said.
But it was the escalating repression against students that brought the ultras and students, from across the spectrum, together.
Students have rebelled against a raft of government measures, which include pre-emptive arrests of students, and the banning of political activities and “insulting” the president on campus.
Universities have been given a military makeover, with the installation of steel walls, barbed wire, metal detectors and CCTV, backed by a heavy-handed security presence in and around campuses.
The new measures were designed to prevent a repeat of the anti-government protests that occurred during the last academic year, in which at least 16 students were killed and hundreds arrested.
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Ultras in Egypt are renowned both for their fanatical support of their clubs and for their willingness to confront the guns and batons of the security forces.
“We took the culture of the ultras in the stadiums and tried to copy and paste it into the street,” said Zizou, a supporter of al-Ahly who declined to give his real name for security reasons.
The majority of Nahdawy members are in high school, but many of the more senior members are university students.
Ultras Nahdawy members have been a small, but prominent, part of many protests. Their chants, songs, flares and fireworks have been particularly notable during demonstrations, particularly at al-Azhar and Ain Shams universities. They are also active in regular Friday protests in their own neighbourhoods.
“Nahda”, meaning “renaissance”, is the term used to refer to the Muslim Brotherhood’s economic and political project.
The creation of Ultras Nahdawy was controversial among football fans and many chose to keep their membership hidden after some were booted out of their original ultras groups when their Nahdawy alliances were discovered.
They claim to put aside their footballing rivalries within their group to focus on the political collective.
They were involved in the protests that followed the military’s ousting of Morsi in July 2013.
Following the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa al-Adaweya on August 14, 2013, they were forced underground and began operating secretly to evade the authorities and occasionally pop-up at demonstrations.
We took the culture of the ultras in the stadiums and tried to copy and paste it into the street.
Many have been arrested under the Protest Law, which effectively outlaws demonstrations that are not sanctioned by the authorities.
Ultras Nahdawy activists claim that they no longer have any official link with the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, although their core demographic still appears to be Islamist. They say that their membership has widened.
“During the January 25 revolution we had our demands and they are still the same: bread, freedom, justice,” Zizou said.
“But now we are also calling for an end to military rule, freedom for the prisoners of conscience, and democratisation – because SCAF [the military leadership] violated democratic principles when they kicked out Morsi.”
Morsi, currently imprisoned and facing multiple charges, is reviled by many Egyptians for his perceived authoritarianism and economic mismanagement while in power.
The Nahdawy are part of a diverse mix of student protesters, many of whom are secular and oppose the Nahdawy’s call for Morsi to return. Yet, repression is forging a degree of solidarity as students and ultras across the political spectrum call for academic and political freedom.
Reem Khorshid, a student at Cairo University, in a recent article for the independent media online platform, Mada Masr, wrote that she knows students who are politically indifferent but who would side with Muslim Brotherhood-supporting colleagues against the security forces.
“The state’s vendetta against the student body doesn’t only include supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi,” wrote Khorshid. “All students feel chafed at the new draconian procedures on campus.”
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In his address at Cairo University in late September, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared: “I love Egypt’s youth and consider them my children,” before warning students against engaging in “malicious” activities and urging them to view the university as solely for education.
Yet, at least one student has died in ongoing confrontations and at least 230 have been arrested so far in this academic year as students vent their anger at the security measures.
The authorities’ repression of student dissent is part of a wider crackdown on secular activists, the media, NGOs, and other ultras groups.
A Cairo court is currently considering a lawsuit to ban Zamalek Sporting Club’s Ultras White Knights (UWK) group following a series of clashes in the past few months.
As one of the few groups to regularly confront the security forces in the streets during Mubarak’s era, ultras were active beyond the stadiums long before the formation of Ultras Nahdawy. When the January 25 uprising broke out in 2011, ultras were at the forefront of protests that toppled the dictator.
“Spectators have been banned from attending football matches for much of the last three and a half years and certainly since the Port Said incident in February 2012, which tells you to what degree the regime views the ultras as a problem or a threat,” says James M Dorsey, author of a forthcoming book on football in the Middle East.
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Dorsey recently wrote that “protesting students backed by militant football fans have turned university campuses into the new stadia“, battling with the authorities over public space.
Some analysts believe the restriction on students, ultras and other groups, may encourage some to become more politically active, and may push others into radicalisation.
“The crackdown will help to nurture violence among young people in general and especially among the ultras,” says Yasser Thabet, author of several books on Egyptian ultras and football.
He believes that some may be tempted to join more radical groups. “Due to the violent confrontations, especially in the universities or at protests, some may move from direct to indirect confrontation which might include even more violence.”
Ultras Nahdawy claim to follow non-violent principles of protest, although Gandhi might not approve. According to Zizou: “If the police attack us, we defend ourselves with fireworks.”
But they also concede that some members are losing patience with “peaceful” protest, especially due to the level of violence they are facing from the authorities.
” Against the political ultras [such as Nahdawy], the police use live ammunition and birdshot,” claimed Zizou. “With the sporting ultras, they just arrest them to scare them or teach them a lesson, to make them bite the bullet. For us it is tougher.”
The targeting of students and ultras is nothing new in Egypt, analysts argue, but the scale of the recent repression is perhaps unprecedented. “We should assume that if attacks from the police continue, the youth will eventually explode,” said one ultras activist.